OK, I know this question isn't about literary analysis or anything but I posted this on ELU and it was put on hold (as off-topic) and I was advised to post it here.

Is alliteration exclusively adjacent words beginning with the same letter, such as:

Whispering willows waved

Or can it be words close together but not adjacent as well, for example in S T Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

“The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,

The furrow followed free;

We were the first that ever burst Into that silent sea.”

(I would not count articles such as 'the' and 'a' as separating words)

Is the 'f' sound in the words "fair" and "first" still classed as alliteration in conjunction with the alliteratory phrases "foam flew" and "furrow followed free"? Or are they too separate to be alliteration?

If words between the alliteratory words is permitted, then how many? I have tried to research this but have been unsuccessful in finding a rule that clarifies whether or not several (let's say more than two) non-allitoratory words between alliteratory words 'takes away' the alliteration.

1 Answer 1


Dr. L. Kip Wheeler's glossary of literary terms defines alliteration as

Repeating a consonant sound in close proximity to others, or beginning several words with the same vowel sound.

The glossary entry then goes on to provide several examples, from Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel:

In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin.

These lines alliterate on p. As you can see, there are several words between the alliterating words. The important factor is not so much the number of words but the alliteration between stressed syllables (as determined by the meter). I have never seen a definite number of syllables that can be between alliterating syllables. (As others on this site have observed, literary theory is not an exact science.)

In the tree lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner quoted in the question, there is quite some "distance" (measured in syllables) between "free" and "first". However, Coleridge put so many words beginning with "f" in the first two lines that the effect still lingers on in the third line. For this reason, claiming that "first" still alliterates with "free", sounds uncontroversial to me. However, the effect of the internal rhyme between "first" and "burst" in the third line sounds at least as strong.

  • 1
    Who is Dr L. Kip Wheeler, and is their glossary considered particularly good or authoritative?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 1:39
  • 2
  • Thanks for this answer, I never thought about whether the stresses were involved. Very interesting.
    – Fabjaja
    Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 10:39
  • If I were pressed to draw a formal boundary line, I'd say that the alliteration ends on Line 2, and that the first rhyming with burst is not part of the alliteration. Fortunately, though, we can follow our feelings as well as the flow, and be flexible.
    – user2664
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 22:33

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