"What are Euphony and Cacophony?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What are Euphony and Cacophony? (English Transcripts Available in Video)

By Walter Moore

24 November 2020

So first off, euphony.  You can probably tell what it means by its sound. "Euphony," you know, like, "euphemistic." "Eu" means good.  "Phone" means sound. So euphony means good sound. Euphonious. Euphony.

Cacophony: "kakos" means bad. Phony (or phone) means sound. So cacophony means "bad sound." You know, cacophonous.

But there's more to it than just good sound / bad sound. It's more about how the sound may or may not match the content of the piece of literature.  It's thinking about the sounds of words-- how they pertain to the context and the content of of the piece of literature.

I'm going to use Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," his title poem, to explain this idea. I'm going to read four parts of it.

Part 1 "Howl, for Carl Solomon": "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. Who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high set up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz."

So, euphony. As you can tell there's a rhythm to this poem. It's long lines-- what Ginsburg would call "long breaths"--almost like jazz riffs. You know, there's a music, there's something beautiful about how the lines just blow out. And it matches the sort of jazzy content of the "angel headed hipsters" and the "starry dynamo," right? The "hollow eyes" and "smoking the supernatural darkness."  You can you can feel the rhythm, right? It's this momentum, this euphonious momentum, that's picking up speed as I read the long lines.

Part two: "What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Moloch! Solitude, filth, ugliness, ash cans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks! Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch!"

So this part is more cacophonous, right? Note the harsh, repetitive consonants. Repetition can not only make something sound pleasing and beautiful. You can have repetition that comes off as jarring and harsh, like "Moloch!" Moloch sounds like what it's indicating: it sounds like the content of the urban, industrial, harsh setting, right? And the auditory stress of "solitude, filth, ugliness"  or "sobbing in armies."

These are harsh words. These are harsh words that match the harsh content of the poem.

 All right, Part Three:

"Carl Solomon! I'm with you in Rockland / where you're madder than I am / I'm with you in Rockland / where you must feel very strange. / I'm with you in Rockland / where you imitate the shade of my mother..."

So I would call this section a hybrid of the cacophonous and the euphonous. It has repetition, "Rockland," which is a harsh sounding word, but not quite as harsh as "Moloch!" But also has "I'm with you" --a softer, delicate, more pleasing refrain that gets repeated over and over again, right?  So even though he's referring to a mental institution, Rockland, there's a softer connotation here that works really well.

So again, first part euphony, second part cacophony, third part kind of bringing it together and you can see how how the two ideas merge.

"Footnote to Howl" (last bit):

 "Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!

The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! ...  Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!

The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!"

So this is beautiful but this is also incredibly sad. And, I would say, the word choices match that thematic combination. The euphonious beginning--the repetition of Holy! Holy!--almost like a mantra. Through this euphony, he sets up the rest of this fourth part for a beautiful display of heartbreaking images, I would say. And that's Ginsberg's point, you know? In Ginsberg's mind, the euphonious and the cacophonous merge. Nothing is completely good or completely bad. We're all wholly euphonious and cacophonous together.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Moore, Walter. "What are Euphony and Cacophony?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 24 Nov. 2020, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-are-euphony-and-cacophony. Accessed [insert date].

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