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All about enjambment and caesura

Welcome to the second lesson in my live blog of Stephen Fry’s, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. How does one live blog a book, you ask? — Well good question!  The Ode Less Travelled happens to be more textbook than easy reading book and comes divided into lessons and exercises — so I’ll share a summary of the lesson and my resulting attempts at the exercises. I welcome your feedback on my practice in the comments! If you missed lesson one, you can find part one here.

In the last lesson, we learned about meter and iambic pentameter. In this second lesson from The Ode Less Travelled, it’s all about end-stopping, enjambment, and caesura, or in simpler words, it’s about how the sense of the poem interacts with meter.

If you write a few simple lines of iambic pentameter, you’re likely to end up with an end-stopped line.

To grab an example from the lines I wrote last lesson:

It truly was a staggering of snow.
I stayed at home and watched it, blow by blow.

Here you can see that each line stands on it’s own. While they’re clearly thematically related, each line could stand on it’s own as a complete thought. The sense of the verse doesn’t flow between lines. This is what is called “end-stopping”.

If the sense does flow from line to line then that is called “enjambment”.

I’ll denote enjambment as =>. For example:

I ran away and in my running lay =>
A longing need, a desperate escape.

Here you can see that the sense does flow between the lines — neither line can stand as a complete thought on it’s own, making this couplet an example of enjambment.

And finally, the last way (for this lesson at least!) in which the sense of the poem can interact with the meter is by caesura.

A caesura is simply a pause in the sense of the line.

(Stephen Fry notes caesura is from the Latin (caedere, caesum, to cut) and stresses that it is pronounced as in ‘he says YOU’RE a fool’).

Both of my couplets above utilize caesura (which I’ll denote with a ^ here):

It truly was a staggering of snow.
I stayed at home and watched it, ^ blow by blow.

And in couplet #2:

I ran away and in my running lay
A longing need, ^ a desperate escape.

So a caesura is simply a place where the sense of the line pauses, but the meter does not.

Why are enjambment and caesura so important for the poet?

It all comes down to poetic effect. And effect is best illustrated with a few examples from the masters. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare uses caesura and enjambment to great effect to capture Leontes’ scattered state of mind after he learns his wife has cuckolded (i.e. cheated on) him.

Go play, boy play. ^ Thy mother plays, and I =>
Play too; but so disgraced a part, whose issue =>
Will hiss me to my grave. ^ Contempt and clamour =>
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been
Or I am much deceived, ^ cuckolds ere now,
And many a man here is, ^ even at this present,
Now, while I speak of this, ^ holds his wife by th’arm =>
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence,
and his pond fished by his next neighbour, by =>
Sir Smile, his neighbour. ^ Nay there’s comfort in’t,
Whiles other men have gates, ^ and those gates opened,
As mine, against their will. ^ Should all despair =>
That have revolted wives, ^ the tenth of mankind =>
Would hang themselves. ^ Physic for’t there’s none.

I challenge you to capture the emotional tone of even a tenth of his desperate rationalizing and helter-skelter thought-jumble using end-stopped lines. So that’s the power of enjambment and caesura — they bring a kind of depth and breathlessness to iambic pentameter that might otherwise be hard to capture using purely end-stopped lines.

Which brings us to this week’s exercise

The rules are relatively straightforward. Summarized in brief:

  1. Write 5 pairs of non-rhyming iambic pentameter lines in which the first line is end-stopped and no caesuras are used.
  2. Re-write those 5 pairs, keeping the same meaning, but make sure to use enjambment
  3. Each new pair should have at least two caesuras

And to make things easier, Stephen Fry assigns a specific topic for each of the 5 pairs:

  1. What you see and hear outside your window (I’ve got curtains and the dullest view on Earth, so I went with “hear”)
  2. What you’d like to eat right now
  3. What you last remember dreaming about
  4. The uncompleted chores that are weighing on you
  5. What you hate about your body

And here’s what I came up with

1. Outside my window:

I hear the neighbors hauling out their trash
And crunching footsteps fall out in the snow

The crunching feet of passers-by, I hear
and hark! The scrape of trash out to the curb!

2. Eat right now

A nice hot cup of tea would suit me well
With a small scoop of chocolate pudding

A cup of tea, and make it hot! I would
like a small bite of chocolate pudding

3. Remember dreaming:

I know not what I dreamed about last night
I hope it wasn’t anything too dull.

The dullness of unremembered dreams! I
fear for my sleep — of interest it was not.

4. Unfinished chores

I need to sweep my bedroom floor today
And pack up for my coming trip up North

My clothes need packing! And my floor, it needs
sweeping! So many chores to do tonight.

5. Hate about your body

My ribs poke out from underneath my skin
I am a walking skeleton in clothes

A walking skeleton I am — my bones
protrude so sharply from beneath my clothes!

Now it’s your turn! Let me know how I did or try your own hand at enjambment and caesura in the comments below.

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