Onomatopoeia in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:05 Definition of Onomatopoeia
  • 0:28 Examples
  • 3:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
In this lesson, we will explore onomatopoeia, one way that poets convey sound. When a poet uses onomatopoeia, the word, itself, looks like the sound it makes, and somehow we 'hear' it as we read.

Definition of Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is one way a poet can create sounds in a poem. An onomatopoeia is a word that actually looks like the sound it makes, and we can almost hear those sounds as we read.

Here are some words that are used as examples of onomatopoeia: slam, splash, bam, babble, warble, gurgle, mumble and belch. But there are hundreds of such words!


We'll take a look at how onomatopoeia is actually used in poems. The first poem is 'The Bells,' by Edgar Allen Poe. Poe begins the poem with a benign look at bells and how sweetly they can sound, but in Poe fashion, he moves to a darker, more sinister role that bells play in life. Here is one stanza from the poem:

'How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells, -
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,
Of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!'

Let's look at the onomatopoeia in the poem. When Poe uses words like, clang, clash, roar, jangling, clamor and clangor, we hear the discordant noise of the bells, not a sweet sound. It reminds us of a fire alarm - something that jars the senses. This is the exact effect that Poe is hoping to produce. Also, even though the word 'bells,' itself, is not usually considered onomatopoeia, by repeating it as he does, we hear the consistent ringing. By choosing these types of words, Poe creates a dark, frightening mood.

For another example, here is a poem called 'Storm' by Olisha Starr that gives us another excellent example of onomatopoeia.

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