We all know poems are supposed to rhyme. But even when poetry doesn’t rhyme, what is that quality in the words that seems to “sing” whenever they’re read aloud? Why does Thin Lizzy’s “I must confess that in my quest I felt depressed and restless” have a ring like it rhymes, even though it doesn’t?

In a word: assonance. And it just may be the secret to giving your poetry and rhymes the lift it needs. Here’s why.

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What Is Assonance?

The traditional assonance definition is the repeated use of a vowel sound across multiple words. For example, consider this classic tongue-twister:

She sells seashells by the seashore.

Why does this phrase send our tongues in knots? Partially because the assonance remains the same while the consonants change, or vice versa. “She sells seashells” includes assonance of the long ‘ee’ sound, while sells and shells share the same short “e” sound. 

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Types of Assonance

Classic Assonance

This is any assonance that repeats the same vowel sound within words, usually with quick succession. For example, Amy Lowell’s poem In a Garden includes the following line:

In granite-lipped basins

Without any obvious rhyming, these words might seem to have little sonic resonance. But look closer. “In” shares the same “I” sound as the end of “granite,” which shares the same sound with “lipped” and the end of “basins.” Though nothing rhymes here, assonance creates an almost jazzy, percussive quality to the words when spoken aloud.

Diphthong Assonance

No, it’s not something you wear to the beach. Diphthong assonance refers to the assonance you create when using two vowels in succession. For example, “straw” shares assonance with the diphthong in “author,” even though one uses “aw” and the other uses “au.” 

Assonance in Poetry

You might think of poetry as prose in audio form. True: many of us listen to prose in the form of books on tape. But poetry is the written word elevated to the art of the spoken word. For this reason, mechanics like assonance have even more prominence in poetry. Let’s consider some famous examples.

“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

The entirety of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven is a labyrinth of assonance examples, internal rhyme, alliteration, and more. But pay attention to this line in particular and its use of the “a” sound. Rare, radiant, maiden, angels, name. Notice how Poe gives every complimentary word toward Lenore a similar sound of assonance. By making these descriptions stand out, Poe can paint a picture of the warmth the narrator feels when he thinks of Lenore.

“How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

Thee, reach, feeling, being, idealthere are more examples of assonance here than there are lines. It all ties into that famous opening line: “How do I love thee?” Here, thee is the theme, and every time Browning taps back into that same long “ee” sound, we’re reminded of the narrator’s love. 

Assonance in Literature

Assonance in poetry is common enough, but what about assonance in literature? You’ll find that when an author wants to evoke a mood in a poetic way, assonance seems to pop up:

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

And stepping softly with her air of blooded ruin about the glade in a frail agony of grace she trailed her rags through dust and ashes…

Glade, frail, agony, grace, trailed, rags. It seems like a list of words that are in juxtaposition with each other. Yet McCarthy ties them together with a unified sound around that basic phrase, “agony of grace.”

What You Did by Claire McGowan

I thought of my abandoned, shattered party.

Though “abandoned” doesn’t rhyme with “shattered,” the assonance between the two creates an echo through the sentence, reflecting the narrator’s lonely feelings.

Babylon Revisited by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Outside, the fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs shone smokily through the tranquil rain. It was late afternoon and the streets were in movement; the bistros gleamed.

This is just a straightforward description to establish the setting, 1930s Paris. But notice how Fitzgerald links imagery and topics with assonance. Ghost-green signs shone smokily. Bistros gleamed. Though Fitzgerald stuffs his descriptions so richly with contrasting vowel sounds, he’s bound to stumble on some assonance.

How to Write Assonance

In most of the examples above, assonance works best when you want to tie words together into themes without going through the extra step of rhyming. Like in alliteration, which ties words together by their opening consonants, the linking of sounds between words also links them conceptually. It’s hard to think of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” without his “Lost Lenore.”

How do you write it yourself? The next time you’re establishing a setting, think of Fitzgerald’s gleaming bistros, or McCarthy’s glade in a frail agony of grace. Even one or two repeating vowel sounds can make your descriptions come to life.

Mastering the Art of Assonance

Assonance alone doesn’t make a great book or poem. But as one tool in your box, it can elevate your descriptions until they echo like poetry. It also helps readers to remember certain phrases you want to highlight—say, if you wanted to get them to “master the art of assonance.” 

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