Enjambment and Caesura

6 07 2009

Whenever I come across a word I didn’t know I tend to look it up. And whenever I come across a new concept I tend to get a bit obsessed and include it in my writing as much as possible, often to the point of ridiculousness. My most recent obsession isn’t really a new concept. However, thanks to a succession of lazy English teachers in my school days, I didn’t know it by its name until I was researching my post about Ezra Pound. It’s actually two concepts, mostly employed as rhetorical devices, enjambment and caesura.

Caesura is the concept of having a pause or break in some part of a poetic line, with the pause tending to follow or conform to the nature of the thought being expressed. For example let’s take two of my favourite lines from poetry. The inscription on the fallen monument in Shelly’s poem Ozymandias:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

The line is broken up rhythmically by the punctuation, which occurs as part of the declaration being expressed. The main purpose served here by the multiple caesuras is to make a more interesting line and to emphasise the arrogance of Ozymandias’ inscription, which is later contrasted with the collapsed and ruined monument to the long dead empire. It should be pointed out, also, that there are different types of caesura: Initial (beginning of the line), Medial (middle of the line), and Terminal (end of the line).

Enjambment involves running a phrase on past the place where it breaks down into the next line; or as Wikipedia puts it “the breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses”. The idea is that the continuous syntactic unit straddles a break in the physical structure of the poem, basically. Like Caesura Enjambment is best used as a rhetorical device. There are two main effects (or employments) of enjambment. By placing the ends and beginnings of syntactic units on the same physical line, Enjambment can encourage the reader to go immediately from one unit to the next. The effect can be to encourage a ‘stream of consciousness’ effect or to unsettle the reading experience slightly. Enjambed phrases have more the feeling of a natural flow of thought than do completely end-stopped phrases*.

The other use of the technique is as a way of delaying a thought in the reading until after the break in order to surprise the reader with it. I can’t come up with a better example than the one used in Wikipedia, so I’ll steal theirs for the moment:

Enjambment may also be used to delay the intention of the line until the following line and thus play on the expectation of the reader and surprise them. Alexander Pope uses this technique for humorous effect in the following lines from The Rape of the Lock:

        On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore
        Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.

The second line should confuse the reader, raising the question “Why would a Jew or infidel adore a cross?” On second reading, the reader should realize that “breast” does not carry the general androgynous connotation of “chest” but instead the specific idea of a woman’s breasts, which are so attractive that a man of any religion would kiss the Christian cross to be near.

So the effects of these rhetorical figures can be as subtle or obvious as the poet chooses. What’s interesting is that these concepts are quite fundamental to poetry. Lines must end, and so must phrases, and the interaction between these two facts is the genesis of many subtle effects. The more we look into the great masters of any form the more we find out that they had exquisite control of even these small nuances. And the magic thing, the thing that made them great, is that they never seemed to notice them at all.


*Phrases where the end of the syntactic unit ends with the end of the line.

Irony, Metaphor, Metonymy and Synecdoche

9 06 2009

There’s a lot online already about figurative language, some of it of more use than others. However, I thought It might be useful to go over, in brief terms, the difference between: Irony, Metaphor, Metonymy, and Synecdoche. Wikipedia has pretty good entries on each of these as well, so feel free to go there if you like.

Irony is perhaps the best known but also most misunderstood of the figurative tropes. Broadly, and we’ll go from the Wikipedia entry for this one, irony is

‘a literary or rhetorical device, in which there is an incongruity or discordance between what one says or does and what one means or what is generally understood.”

Or, according to Harold Bloom in his ‘The Art of Reading poetry’:

‘…saying one thing while meaning something so different that it can be the precise opposite. We learn to wince when Hamlet says: “I humbly thank you” or its equivalent, since the prince generally is neither humble nor grateful.’

Metaphor, also, is well known and well understood. In simple terms it is the transfer of characteristics of one object to another. So if you say ‘The office-building was a tomb’ you take those meanings commonly associated with tombs, those of death, stillness, morbidity and so on, and overlay them onto the understanding of an office. Wikipedia offers a good example, it says:

The metaphor, according to I. A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), consists of two parts: the tenor and vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed. The vehicle is the subject from which the attributes are borrowed. Other writers employ the general terms ground and figure to denote what Richards identifies as the tenor and vehicle. Consider the All the world’s a stage monologue from As You Like It:

     And all the men and women merely players;
     They have their exits and their entrances;

     — (William      Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7)

All the world’s a stage,

In this example, “the world” is compared to a stage, the aim being to describe the world by taking well-known attributes from the stage. In this case, “the world” is the tenor and “a stage” is the vehicle. “Men and women” are a secondary tenor and “players” is the vehicle for this secondary tenor.

Synecdoche is different to both Irony and Metaphor, but it is just as concrete in its implications. It represents a trope where a ‘part’ is substituted for a ‘whole’. The common example of this is ’50 head of cattle’ where the heads are counted in order to represent the whole animal. The whole is implied by the presence of the part.

Metonymy, finally, is where something is referred to in terms of something it is closely associated with. This is different from synecdoche, where the two elements being summoned must be part of the same whole. Instead, in metonymy, the requirement for referral is one of ‘intimate association’. As Harold Bloom says: ‘The name or prime aspect of something is sufficient to indicate it.’ So, for example, in the line ‘Lend me your ears’, ‘ears’ is used to refer to hearing, or attention, as there is a common understanding of association between the two.
It is tempting to boil these few tropes down to a calculus of language, (e.g. irony = using A to say B. Metaphor = taking elements of A and assigning them to B) however, as in much of language, the practical divides between irony, metaphor, synecdoche and metonymy are thin and fungible. I suggest further reading. Leave a comment below if you have any ideas of the next place to look.