One peculiar mode of giving effect to design in art of different kinds, directly applicable, indeed, to certain branches far more than to others, and which appertains to delineation and not to the picturesque, is that which is known by the name of Alliteration. In descriptions and compositions in poetry and prose it is readily and extensively availed of. Through re-sort to this contrivance, attempts have occasionally been made to obtain that regularity and relation of one part to another, and musical intonation in prose composition, which are so peculiarly characteristic of versification ; and which has been effected by causing several words in the same line to commence with the same letter, by means of which an echo-like repetition of the same sound is produced, corresponding with rhyme in verse. Resort to alliteration appears in some cases serviceable in order to add to the terseness and pungency of certain sentences of a proverbial or epigrammatic character, and to point and give effect to the turn of a phrase which it is desired to imbue with peculiar force. In this respect it is the rhyme of prose composition. It may be only putting ideas into a new dress ; but then it is by the dress alone that the rank of the individual is proclaimed. Nevertheless, as dress itself cannot convert a clown into a courtier, so ideas essentially vulgar and commonplace cannot be exalted by any phraseology in which they may be couched into sentiments of real value.
Alliteration is also resorted to, as was in the olden times frequently done with versification, where it is desired to set a particular sentence in so fixed and measured an order that no word in it can be altered without destroying its meaning, which is peculiarly the case with epigrams and proverbs. Cæsar’s celebrated boast, ” Veni, vidi, vici,” owes mainly its pungency and epigrammatic power to its alliteration; as does the following sentence, which is considerably more pungent and forcible than if precisely the same meaning was expressed in different words without regard to their alliteration, which shows the effect of this device ; as for instance : —
“Time, sea, and railway wait for nobody.”
But in poetry alliteration may be, and often is, introduced with the rhyme, and acts in conjunction with it in giving force and pungency to the line; thus the expression
” When days are dark, and friends are few,”
is considerably more epigrammatic and pungent than if the line was rendered :-
“When days are gloomy, and friends scarce ;”
although the only substantial alteration consists in depriving it of the alliteration.
The forcible and thrilling appeal which Milton puts into the mouth of Satan, derives much of its power and effect from the alliteration : —–
“Awake, arise, or be for everfallen.”
On another occasion Milton resorts to alliteration to point the line which winds up his description of Eve, and from which mainly it derives the great terseness by which it is characterized : —-
“Defac’d, deflowr’d, and now to death devote.”
So in Pope’s celebrated line,
” Who shall decide when doctors disagree ?”
much of the point arises from the alliteration, each of the leading words commencing with the same letter, d.
Alliteration, which is now but little and only very sparingly resorted to in general composition, is nevertheless still of considerable use, and is largely availed of in aphorisms and mot-toes, and other compositions of an epigrammatic character, more especially in stanzas of poetry of this class, where the utmost pungency and effect are sought to be attained in a very small compass, and one or two phrases are intended to tell with great and concentrated force. Alliteration, in such a case, conduces much to the point and meaning of the whole. Its success, in this respect, is the surest proof of its value, and of the important ends which a careful and judicious resort to it may attain. It ought consequently not to be wholly disregarded it general composition, whether prose or poetry, whenever its services are applicable. Indeed, the ancient as well as the modern classical writers, and those of the highest rank, Cicero among them, scrupled not extensively to avail themselves of this device, and many of their most renowned sentences owe to it a great deal of their fire. On the other hand, the copious manner in which alliteration has been introduced into certain of the compositions of our older poets, amounting to extravagance, and almost distorting the harmony of the verse, may have contributed to discredit the system. An extract from an ancient ballad may be interesting here as an illustration of the extent to which alliteration has, on some occasions, been attempted : —
“In december, when the dayes draw to be short, After november, when the nights wax noysome and long, As I past by a place privily at a port, I saw one sit by himself making a song; His last talk of trifles, who told with his tongue That few were fast i’ th’ faith. I `freyned’ that freake, Whether he wanted wit, or some had done him wrong.”
This device, too, being used in a barbarous age, and to set off poetry correspondingly barbarous, has served to confirm the contempt into which it has fallen.
The combined force and elegance exhibited in the composition of the English Liturgy cannot be denied, and are indeed admitted by all, even by those who do not coincide in the sentiments which it expresses. But it is equally undeniable that its terseness is, to a large extent, owing to the alliteration which is occasionally, and very judiciously, although sparingly introduced throughout the composition, particularly in those exquisite and indeed perfect portions of it, the Collects. Here we seethe proper use of alliteration, of which the extravagant application in the verses last quoted was the abuse. It cannot be doubted, indeed, that alliteration is an ornament, and one which is very apparent and striking, if judiciously and temperately availed of; although never to be adopted so as to sacrifice the force or meaning of the sentiment to be conveyed. What rhyme is to poetry, alliteration is to eloquence. As an element of delineation, it may be rendered very serviceable. But it is hardly to be ranked as a contributory to the picturesque. What strong lights and shadows effect in setting off compositions in painting and sculpture, rhyme and alliteration perform in a corresponding manner for those in poetry and eloquence.
An interesting subject of inquiry here, however, arises as to how far the use of alliteration, or rather of alliterative ornament, or of ornament closely corresponding with and analogous to it, is applicable to delineation in other branches of art, as well as in poetry and eloquence. In architectural design a kind of resort of this description is directly traceable, and is extensively available in the uniformity of various ornamental terminations closely relating one to another, which are made use of in different parts of the edifice, and which answer to the terminations, whether in rhyme or alliteration, in poetical and prose composition. In costume, too, these kinds of ornaments are observable, as they are also, to a large extent, in the antique formal style of gardening, where each border and nook and corner has its exactly corresponding member. In painting, moreover, as regards the distribution and the relation of different particular colours, and masses of light and shade, this agreement may be traced; as also in respect to the various members of the composition in some of the old and formal groups, both in pictorial and sculptural design. In music and in acting this principle appears applicable, though less easily and less directly, except so far as the design of the composition in either of those arts is made to contain certain direct relations one with another of the nature here alluded to.