Definition of Enjambment

Enjambment is a literary device in which a line of poetry carries its idea or thought over to the next line without a grammatical pause. With enjambment, the end of a poetic phrase extends past the end of the poetic line. This means that the thought or idea “steps over” the end of a line in a poem and into the beginning of the next line. The absence of punctuation allows for enjambment, and requires the reader to read through a poem’s line break without pausing in order to understand the conclusion of the thought or idea.

Enjambment is often used by poets as a means of minimizing the difference between the sound of verse and the sound of prose, creating a poem that flows freely and emphasizes unexpected beats and words for the reader. For example, T.S. Eliot utilizes enjambment as a literary device in his poem “The Waste Land”:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

With Eliot’s use of enjambment, the action words are deliberately placed at the end of each line. Therefore, the reader must take a slight pause at the enjambed poetic line, even though the thought continues. This emphasizes the verbs in the poem and underscores the upheaval and reproduction experienced by nature in April.

Effects of Enjambment in Poetry

In terms of poetry, lineation reflects the way lines are divided and where they end relative to a clause or thought. Line breaks at the end of a phrase or complete thought in a poem are generally part of its structure and an expectation of the reader. However, poets often use enjambment as a literary device to offset this expectation, as the technique of enjambment surprises readers by ending a poetic thought at a different point than the end of the poetic line. This allows the poet more freedom with creating verses, how they sound, and the way they feel for the reader.

Here are some effects of enjambment in poetry:

  • fosters fluidity by continuing a though across the end of the poetic line. This can create an element or quality of prose in a poem.
  • creates complexity through allowing a more narrative-like sense within a poem, as thoughts are not confined to single poetic lines.
  • creates tension and drama by moving the reader forward in the poem to reach the resolution of the thought in the next line or subsequent poetic lines.
  • enhances the pacing and momentum of a poem by eliminating punctuated pauses at each line break so that the reader continues to the next line more rapidly to reach the conclusion of the poet’s thought.

Famous Examples of Enjambment in Shakespeare

In his plays, William Shakespeare often utilized enjambment as a literary technique for poetic dialogue. This enables characters to continue their thoughts with a smooth flow rather than stilted end-stops that may interfere with reader/audience understanding of the dialogue and enjoyment of the performance. Here are some famous examples of enjambment in Shakespeare:

  • Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing. (Macbeth)
  • Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
    Justice to break her sword! One more, one more. (Othello)
  • To be, or not to be, that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
    And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
    No more; and by a sleep to say we end
    The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
    To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub: (Hamlet)
  • What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet; (Romeo and Juliet)
  • I will have such revenges on you both
    That all the world shall- I will do such things-
    What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be
    The terrors of the earth! You think I’ll weep.
    No, I’ll not weep. (King Lear)
  • I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
    As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
    Which shall be either to this gentleman
    Or to her death, according to our law
    Immediately provided in that case. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Difference Between Enjambment and End-Stop

Since poetry is considered a structured form of literature, it features patterns and rhythms that influence how poetic verses flow for the reader. Therefore, the way a line of verse ends is significant for this flow. A line of verse in a poem can end in two ways: end-stop and enjambment.

In poetry, end-stop is a literary device that consists of a pause at the end of a line of poetry. End-stops are generally indicated by punctuation, such as a period (a full stop), comma, semi-colon, or any other punctuation that reflects the end of a complete phrase or clause. End-stops can also be indicated without punctuation if the poetic line is the logical end of a complete thought.

Most poetic lines feature end-stop, as this allows a pause at each line break within a verse. This literary device enhances the formal structure of poems with regular rhythm and rhyme scheme. To readers, end-stops are the most common and familiar method of ending a line of poetry since it creates a pause that is usually punctuated. Enjambment, as a literary device, is the opposite of end-stop. Enjambment allows a thought from one line break to flow into the next, without any punctuation or indication of completion. This is useful as a differentiation from structured poetry and is more common in free verse.

Examples of Enjambment in Literature

Example 1: Harlem (Langston Hughes)

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

In his poem, Hughes effectively utilizes enjambment as a literary device in the second line to create tension and move the reader forward in search for the answer to the poet’s question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” By ending the line with “dry up” and no form of punctuation, the reader has the experience of the poetic line itself “drying up” and carrying over to the next line to both finish and enhance the meaning of the poet’s thought.

Hughes utilizes enjambment once again in line nine. The poet ends the line with “sags” and no punctuation, so the reader is moved toward the next line for the completed thought. However, the wording of this enjambment also has a symbolic effect in that the poetic line itself “sags” with an unfinished resolution. Therefore, Hughes’ two uses of enjambment not only create tension for the reader through continuation into the next poetic lines, but they mirror and echo the meanings of the words themselves that are part of the enjambments.

Example 2: Love Sonnet XVII (Pablo Neruda, translated by Mark Eisner)

I Love You as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose
from the earth lives dimly in my body.
This quatrain from one of Neruda’s Love Sonnets utilizes enjambment to influence the pacing and momentum of the poem. The reader is encouraged at the end of the first and third lines to continue reading without pause, much like a reader would do with a work of prose. However, though the enjambments create a prose-like quality to the poem, the poetic wording and meaning is not harmed or lost as a result.
In fact, the two enjambments featured in this part of the sonnet actually enhance the poet’s complete thought and expression. The poet is comparing the way he loves to things that remain internal and within themselves, such as a plant that hides its flowers without blooming. The quatrain expresses a single thought in four lines and contains just two end-stops. Therefore, enjambments allow for the meaning of the poet’s complete thought to be hidden within the words of poetic expression in the full quatrain. This reflects and echoes the poet’s internal and hidden way of loving.

Example 3: This Is Just To Say (William Carlos Williams)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
In this poem, Williams utilizes enjambment as a literary device in nearly every poetic line. This creates a sense of drama and complexity to what appears initially to be simple verse. In fact, the poem reads as if it is a note written in prose. However, the deliberate and sparse use of wording on the part of the poet, including enjambments, reveal a surprisingly dramatic and complex narrative.
For example, the word “probably” ends poetic line number six, implying that there was doubt in the poet’s mind whether the person being addressed was actually “saving” the plums for breakfast. Yet by line nine, the poet has asked for forgiveness, indicating that there really was no doubt as to whether the person being addressed intended to save the plums. Such enjambments are used for dramatic effect in the narrative, but also enhance the complexity of the poem by calling the poet’s motives into question.