4.4 - Elision, Caesura and Enjambment

Three other features you will need to know about for your analysis that often contribute to the tensions within the poem are elision, caesura and enjambment. Iambic pentameter lines should but do not always have ten syllables. There are so-called headless lines, a nine-syllable line with the initial w missing which you scan by simply putting the implied but missing w in parentheses. Sometimes lines have eleven syllables, the extra one most often occurring as an unstressed syllables at the end of the line or in the middle of the line with a syntactic pause. However, frequently the extra syllable in the line can be made to can be made to conform to metrical expectation through elision. ELISION makes two syllables into one. Naturally, elision cannot happen anywhere you feel like it but generally happens "where there is an unstressed vowel before a consonant or where one syllable ends with a vowel and the next begins with one (e. g., 'the oth-') (PIE 1166). When you read a line with an elision, you may be unaware of the way it complicates the line metrically since we almost automatically compensate for deviations to keep beats regular; but in so far as elision requires a hurrying to get in all the syllables, it contributes to the sense of a line's speed. As soon as you try to analyze the line, you will become very aware of the need to compensate for the irregularity. I mark elisions with a triangle over the two elided syllables to show that the two, signaled by the bottom two points of the triangle, equal a single syllabic position marked by the top point of the triangle. Here's an example from Donne:


Example 20

In the Versification section of this tutorial, you learned that a PHONOLOGICAL PHRASE is defined as a syntactic phrase that produces an optional intonation break at its conclusion. While most of these breaks are not marked in performing a line, there are other kinds of breaks or pauses that are. Most iambic pentameter poems have the majority of their lines end with a syntactic pause, i.e., the syntax and the metrical pattern are parallel to one another. Such lines are referred to as END STOPPED because of the coincidence of syntax and rhythm; very often such lines will have punctuation to further signal the closure of the line. However, many poems include lines in which the syntax does not coincide with the line breaks, producing caesuras and often, enjambments. A CAESURA is a pause, normally signaled by a strong syntactic break underscored by punctuation such as a comma, semi-colon, colon or a period that occurs somewhere other than the end of the line, most often in the middle, as in these lines from Milton's sonnet, "When I consider how my light is spent" (PIE 281). There are caesuras in lines 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.


When I consider how my light is spent,
    Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
    And that one talent which is death to hide
    Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
    My true account, lest He returning chide;
    "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
    I fondly ask: but Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
    Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
    Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: his state
Is kingly: Thousands at his bidding speed,
    And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
    They also serve who only stand and wait."

Very often, the medial caesura is produced, as in these cases, by units of thought and syntax that exceed the prescribed pentameter length. In these lines Milton has masterfully draped his thought units over the shorter pentameter lines, producing an astonishing contrast between meter and syntax. He achieves this effect through ENJAMBMENT which occurs when the line end is not coincident with the syntax and the thought runs over into the next line. Note that enjambed lines usually do not have punctuation at the end (though lack of punctuation doesn't necessarily mean enjambment and the presence of punctuation doesn't preclude it. Syntax is what matters most.) The caesura or medial pause is often the launching platform for an enjambment, as you can see in all of the lines with a caesura.

The strong contrast between syntax and meter produced by enjambment can contribute significantly to the poem's tension. I mark enjambments by using a broken line, shaped like a generative tree, to signal the connection between the lines.


Example 22a

Example 22b

Example 22c

One of the most important effects of enjambment is to make the reader aware of the multiple domains of experience and thought to which the poem can simultaneously make us attend. That is, we are aware of the iambic pentameter metrical set and of the line as a unit. But we are also aware of the longer sense units. These simultaneous orders can have both global and local effects. We may consider both how a given phrase operates within a given line as well as its relationship to its larger syntactic grouping. Thus, enjambment makes us look both forwards and backwards in the poem, anticipating prospectively a line ending as well as retrospectively, hearing a just read phrase as initiating a thought whose incompleteness may only gradually become apparent. In the Milton example, these simultaneous orders are quite apparent in the lines,

That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: his state

"God doth not need," read as an isolated phrase, is a theological truism that signals both God's omniscience and omnipresence. But it also stands as an ironic reminder of the plight Milton writes about: what need has God of any human, let alone one whose blindness thwarts his one true talent? This phrase does not exist in isolation; it is swept up by the headlong speed Milton creates through the enjambment in these and the following lines as he ticks off the contrast between those thousands who feverishly follow God's bidding and those who "also serve who only stand and wait." The poem's resolution, reached in the completely regular and unenjambed last line, brings metrical, syntactic and conceptual closure by re-harnessing these diverging domains, making them once again coincident. Milton's remarkable technique further suggests that in fact he has not stood idly by while others worked.

Exercise #9

Scan these lines from Shelley's "Ozymandias" (12-14; for the full text, see PIE 578) using the beat / offbeat method; in addition, mark the enjambments that occur and then spend some time thinking about why Shelley uses them here. What effect do they have on your reading experience and understanding?

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.