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Tennyson’s Excursions into Onomatopoeia

Updated on November 19, 2012
Alfred Tennyson, (1809  1892)
Alfred Tennyson, (1809 1892)

Tennyson's Onomatopoeia

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Words of majesty and beauty, enabling us to be in the eagle’s presence. I especially revel in the line, “The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls.” Just the way the sea would look from up there. Distance expressed in the imagery itself.

Though this is not what I wish to bring to your notice today. Please read the first line of the poem again.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands.
Clasps, crag and crooked. Hard sounds to mirror that strong grip.
Tennyson’s use of this literary device, called Onomatopoeia, along with his powerful imagery enhances our experience manyfold. Have you read his Come Down, O Maid? The last three lines are perfect examples of onomatopoeia:
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro’ the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Read it aloud please, for double the pleasure.

In The Lady of Shalott we have light, fluid sounds, especially caused by lots of ‘l’s, that float with us downstream:
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right

The leaves upon her falling light

Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:

I wrote this not to reveal the tricks used by the poet, as one would those of a conjurer and kill the innocent enchantment of his audience, not even to advocate the use of this literary device in your pieces, but to find different ways to delight in a master’s art, and extend an invitation to you to take part in the celebrations.

A close friend, a writer, pointed out that my illustrations of Onomatopoeia were wrong. She said that the term Onomatopoeia referred to sound, and only sound – not to images. According to the OED: onomatopoeia is the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named. eg cuckoo, sizzle, crack, clang, clatter.

But I love the Merriam-Webster more. It includes the use of words whose sound suggests the sense in its definition. Fowler’s Modern English Usage and the Britannica are in agreement too. The Britannica gives as one of the examples, Tennyson’s ‘The Brook.’


I bubble into eddying bays, I babble on the pebbles. Click on link above for the poem and follow the course of the babbling brook.


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    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 6 years ago from Chennai

      Thank you, Maralexa! That was an eloquent comment, too! :)

    • Maralexa profile image

      Marilyn Alexander 6 years ago from Vancouver, Canada and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

      Very interesting and enlightening hub. I wish I could express my appreciation as eloquently as Christopher Price, above. I certainly feel the same.

      I have enjoyed Tennyson's work so much but never studied it. So I perhaps never knew what it was about his work that appealed to me.

      I have also enjoyed your work. Thank you for this hub!

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 6 years ago from Chennai

      LOL! It's mnemonic, Carolyn! :)

    • Carolyn Moe profile image

      Carolyn Moe 6 years ago

      oh no, now i can't remember the word for a good place to hang a mneumonic on? would that be the term... thanks for Poe living there... who could forget that.... now i've forgotten the meaning of onomonopoeia... something about liking the sound of something?... dear me this could go on for days...

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 6 years ago from Chennai

      Yes, Carolyn, that too! :D

      People don't have a problem with the first two-thirds: ono mato -

      Maybe it will help to remember that Poe lives there.

      Ono-mato-Poe-ia! :)

    • Carolyn Moe profile image

      Carolyn Moe 6 years ago

      most difficult to spell... !

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 6 years ago from Chennai

      It's not an easy word. :D

    • Carolyn Moe profile image

      Carolyn Moe 6 years ago

      I was just going to ask a friend about this word she taught me two years ago... forgotten at 16 months.

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 6 years ago from Chennai

      Yes, CP's! :)) Thank you, Hello, hello and CP! :))

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

      I learned some more from your hub as well as from the comment. Thank you.

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 6 years ago from Chennai

      And I'm glad I have you there reading, Doug! Much thanks! :))

      I absolutely agree with you, CP! Exploring the secrets of an artist is to delight in his or her art in many more ways. And yes, overuse of any device could show up and spoil the pleasure.

      And that was a very good comment! Thank you! :))

    • Christopher Price profile image

      Christopher Price 6 years ago from Vermont, USA

      Onomatopoeia and alliteration are two valuable tools available to writers of both poetry and prose. Your chosen examples of Tennyson effectively highlight both.

      Although there is much to be said for the ability of the first time reader of a work to simply go with the flow and enjoy, for me the rereading and examining of the craftsmanship of a piece enhances my enjoyment of the artistry.

      When I view a master's painting I am invariably drawn closer and closer until I can see the individual appreciate the subtle touches that contribute to the whole.

      Unlike revealing the secrets of a magician's illusion, calling attention to the artist's methods should only increase our appreciation.

      I find it especially gratifying when comments on my hubs confirm my efforts to use just the right word or create a memorable phrase have been noted and acknowledged. Overuse of any literary device can render a work labored or trite, but used subtly with skill magic can happen.

      This was a very good hub.


    • profile image

      Doug Turner Jr. 6 years ago

      An exemplary explanation of what makes exceptional litary devices so exuberantly exciting. Glad I started to follow and read your work. Thanks -- Doug.

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 6 years ago from Chennai

      Aw, I'm only a sharer, SunSeven. :)

      Thank you.

    • SunSeven profile image

      SunSeven 6 years ago from Singapore / India

      Thank you teacher. Another day, another new word learned.

      Best Regards