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.