My greatest sin as a writer is overusing assonance and alliteration. Not for rhetorical effect, but because my mind inexplicably infatuates itself with certain combinations or clusters of consonants or vowels. A neurologist once told me this tendency is common among those who learned language late like I did, so although I struggle to string a sentence together every day damn, at least I know I'm not alone.
Still, fighting this tide of unmeaningful drift occupies countless hours, and I wonder whether this waste could be combated more successfully. After reading Adam's account of avoiding alliteration, I began wasting countless hours wondering about ways not to waste countless hours. If I follow the flow, my meaning might mingle unproductively with the arbitrary apportioning of letters in words. If I restrict it, I'll wrestle with the wrong words all afternoon, producing paragraphs of laboriously unpurpled prose instead of pounds of purple pages.
The problem with (and appeal of) alliteration and assonance is the interconnectedness it inspires, as if the repeated consonant and vowel sounds benumb the brain into an associative state. I want those connections to seem subtly more sound than they are, because creating an impression of interconnectedness could compel readers to respond favorably to arguments they might otherwise resist. Don't know what I mean? Read this paragraph from Edith Wharton's Summer:
On such an afternoon Charity Royall lay on a ridge above a sunlit hollow, her face pressed to the earth and the warm currents of the grass running through her. Directly in her line of vision a blackberry branch laid its frail white flowers and blue-green leaves against the sky. Just beyond, a tuft of sweet-fern uncurled between the beaded shoots of the grass, and a small yellow butterfly vibrated over them like a fleck of sunshine. This was all she saw; but she felt, above her and about her, the strong growth of the beeches clothing the ridge, the rounding of pale green cones on countless spruce-branches, the push of myriads of sweet-fern fronds in the cracks of the stony slope below the wood, and the crowding shoots of meadowsweet and yellow flags in the pasture beyond. All this bubbling of sap and slipping of sheaths and bursting of calyxes was carried to her on mingled currents of fragrance. Every leaf and bud and blade seemed to contribute its exhalation to the pervading sweetness in which the pungency of pine-sap prevailed over the spice of thyme and the subtle perfume of fern, and all were merged in a moist earth-smell that was like the breath of some huge sun-warmed animal.
The whole paragraph turns on a semicolon: "This was what she saw; but she felt ..." The description of what she felt dramatizes the dilemma described above. Sight connects things gently, such as the "blackberry branch" and "frail white flowers." When Wharton wants to emphasize the emotional interconnection Royall feels, she turns to heavy alliteration: "this bubbling of sap and slipping of sheaths," "the pungency of pine-sap prevailed," &c. The assonance is usually accompanied by internal alliteration, as in "the subtle perfume of fern" and "all were merged in a moist earth-smell." Is the effect of reading what Royall felt not stunningly seductive? Now imagine if it were pressed into argumentative service. Would it not be equally compelling if it could be controlled, deployed not dangerously often but rather for effect?*
*Please answer in the affirmative. Otherwise I might cry.