Definition of Caesura

Everyone speaks, and everyone breathes too. While speaking, everyone breathes. For instance, when you say, “Maria has taken breaks,” you take breath before further saying that, “But Adam did not,” then again you take a little breath and say, “He fell on his ankle.” Such pauses come from natural rhythm of your speech. Poetry also uses pauses in the lines. One of such pauses is known as caesura, which is a rhythmical pause in a poetic line or a sentence. It often occurs in the middle of a line, or sometimes at the beginning and the end. At times, it occurs with punctuation; however, at other times it does not. Poets indicate it with a parallel symbol thus: ||. Caesura can be medial (occurring in the middle of line), initial (occurring at the beginning of poetic line), or terminal (occurring at the end of a poetic line).

Types of Caesura

Caesural breaks or caesura are of two types in poetry:

Feminine Caesura

Feminine caesural pause occurs after a non-stressed and short syllable in a poetic line. This is little softer and less abrupt. For instance:

“I hear lake water lapping || with low sounds by the shore…”

(The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats)

It has two subdivisions,

  • Epic Caesura
  • Lyric Caesura

Masculine caesura

Masculine pause occurs after a long or accented syllable in a line. It creates staccato effect in the poem, such as:

“of reeds and stalk-crickets, || fiddling the dank air,
lacing his boots with vines, || steering glazed beetles”

(The Bounty by Derek Walcott)

Examples of Caesura from Literature

Example 1

It is for you we speak, || not for ourselves:
You are abused || and by some putter-on
That will be damn’d for’t; || would I knew the villain,
I would land-damn him. || Be she honour-flaw’d,
I have three daughters; || the eldest is eleven

(The Winter Tales by William Shakespeare)

This passage is an instance of feminine caesura, which occurs immediately after unstressed syllable like “speak,” second syllable “bused, in abused,” “him,” and “ters” in word “daughters.”

Example 2

Dead ! One of them shot by the sea in the east…
What art can a woman be good at? || Oh, vain !
What art is she good at, || but hurting her breast
With the milk-teeth of babes, || and a smile at the pain ?
Ah boys, //how you hurt! || you were strong as you pressed,
And I proud, || by that test.

(Mother and Poet by Elizabeth Barrett)

This poem presents a perfect example of masculine caesura. Look at the pauses occurring after stressed syllables including “at,” “babes,” “boys,” “hurt,” and “proud.” You can see the first line uses initial caesura, at “Dead,” a pause at the beginning of line.

Example 3

Alas, how chang’d! || what sudden horrors rise!
A naked lover || bound and bleeding lies!
Where, where was Eloise? || her voice, her hand,
Her poniard, || had oppos’d the dire command.
Barbarian, stay! || that bloody stroke restrain;…
Death, || only death, can break the lasting chain;

(From “Eloisa to Abelard” by Alexander Pope)

Pope has frequently used caesural pauses in his poems to bring depth. Mostly he has used masculine caesura happening in the middle of the lines. However, sometimes initial caesura occurs, such as in the sixth line, it comes after “Death.” This variation clears the meaning of the text.

Example 4

I’m nobody! ||Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us|| — don’t tell!
They’d banish ||– you know!

(From “I’M Nobody! Who Are You?” by Emily Dickinson)

Dickinson has used masculine caesural pause in the middle of verses. These breaks create a staccato effect an uneven rhythm in the flow of sound and conveying the depth of an idea.

Function of Caesura

A caesural break creates various effects depending upon the way it is used. Sometimes it breaks the monotonous rhythm of a line and forces readers to focus on the meaning of the phrase preceding caesura. In some other cases, it might create a dramatic or ominous effects. Normally, it happens in the middle of a sentence, or phrase in poetry. It also adds an emotional and theatrical touch to a line and help conveying depth of the sentiments.

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