Enjambment

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Enjambment or enjambement is the breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses. It is to be contrasted with end-stopping, where each linguistic unit corresponds with a single line, and caesura, in which the linguistic unit ends mid-line. The term is directly borrowed from the French enjambement, meaning "straddling" or "bestriding".

The following lines from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (c. 1611) are heavily enjambed:

Meaning flows as the lines progress, and the reader’s eye is forced to go on to the next sentence. It can also make the reader feel uncomfortable or the poem feel like “flow-of-thought” with a sensation of urgency or disorder.

In contrast, the following lines from Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595) are completely end-stopped:

Each line is formally correspondent with a unit of thought — in this case, a clause of a sentence. End-stopping is more frequent in early Shakespeare: as his style developed, the proportion of enjambment in his plays increased. Scholars such as Goswin König and A. C. Bradley have estimated approximate dates of undated works of Shakespeare by studying the frequency of enjambment.

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:

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 heterosexual man of any religion would kiss the Christian cross to be near.

A master of enjambment, E. E. Cummings combined it with the use of punctuation as an art form:

For another example of enjambment in poetry, look at the opening lines of Catullus XIII, ad Fabullum:

Here is an English translation, roughly preserving word order:

The phrase si tecum attuleris bonam atque magnam / cenam (“if you bring with you a good and great / dinner”) is sharply enjambed between the third and fourth lines.

Enjambment is sometimes referred to as a "run-on line".


Further reading

John Hollander, Vision and Resonance, Oxford U. Press, 1975 (especially chapter 5).

The Literary Encyclopedia

See also

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