Enjambment

Enjambment

[en-jam-muhnt, -jamb-]
Enjambment (also spelled 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". See also "line breaks".

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

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown.

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:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished.

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:

On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.

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 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:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
——————————————————— i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

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

Cenabis bene, mi Fabulle, apud me
paucis, si tibi di favent, diebus,
si tecum attuleris bonam atque magnam
cenam, non sine candida puella
et vino et sale et omnibus cachinnis.

Here is an English translation, roughly preserving word order:

You will dine well, my Fabullus, at my house
in a few, if the gods favor you, days,
and if you bring with you a good and great
dinner, not without a white girl
and wine and wit and laughs for all.

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.

Further reading

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

The Literary Encyclopedia

See also

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