(alternative spellings are cæsura
) is a term to denote an audible pause that breaks up a line of verse
. In most cases, caesura is indicated by punctuation marks
which cause a pause in speech: a comma
, a semicolon
, a full stop
, a dash
, etc. Punctuation, however, is not necessary for a caesura to occur.
There are two types of caesurae: masculine and feminine. A masculine caesura is a pause that follows a stressed syllable; a feminine caesura follows an unstressed syllable. Another distinction is by the position of the caesura in a line. Initial caesura describes a break close to the beginning of a line, medial denotes a pause in the middle and terminal occurs at the very end. Initial and terminal caesura were rare in formal, Romance, and Neoclassical verse, which preferred medial caesura. In scansion, the "double pipe" sign ("||") is used to denote the position of a caesura in a line.
Caesurae feature prominently in Greek and Latin versification, especially in the heroic verse form, dactylic hexameter.
In musical notation, caesura denotes a complete cessation of musical time.
The "double pipes" or "train tracks" are not original to any of the texts quoted, but only serve to show the position of the audible pause.
Caesuras were widely used in Greek poetry, for example in the opening line of the Iliad:
- μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ || Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος οὐλομένην
This line includes a masculine caesura after θεὰ, a natural break that separates the line into two logical parts. Unlike later writers, Homeric lines more commonly employ the feminine caesura
Caesuras were widely used in Latin poetry
, for example in Virgil
's opening line of the Aeneid
- Arma virumque cano, || Troiae qui primus ab oris
- ("I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy. . .")
This line displays an obvious caesura in the medial position. In dactylic hexameter, a caesura occurs any time the ending of a word does not coincide with the beginning or the end of a metrical foot; in modern prosody, however, it is only called one when the ending also coincides with an audible pause in the line. The ancient elegiac couplet form of the Greeks and Romans contained a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of pentameter; the pentameter often displayed an even more obvious caesura:
- Cynthia prima fuit; || Cynthia finis erit.
- ("Cynthia was the first; Cynthia will be the last" — Propertius)
The caesura was even more important to Old English verse
than it was to Latin or Greek poetry. In Latin or Greek poetry, the caesura could be suppressed for effect in any line at will. In the alliterative verse
that is shared by most of the oldest Germanic languages
, the caesura is an ever-present and necessary part of the verse form itself. Consider the opening line of Beowulf
- Hwæt! we Gar-Dena || on geardagum
- ("Lo! we Spear-Danes, in days of yore. . .")
's Piers Plowman
- I loked on my left half || as þe lady me taughte
- And was war of a womman || worþeli ycloþed.
- ("I looked on my left side, as the lady told me to, and perceived an expensively dressed woman.")
Caesuras can occur in later forms of verse; in these, though, they are usually optional. The so-called ballad
meter, or the common meter
of the hymn
odists, is usually thought of as a line of iambic tetrameter
followed by a line of trimeter
, but it can also be considered a line of heptameter
with a fixed caesura at the fourth foot.
Considering the break as a caesura in these verse forms, rather than a beginning of a new line, explains how sometimes multiple caesuras can be found in this verse form (from the limerick Tom o' Bedlam):
- From the hag and hungry goblin || that into rags would rend ye,
- And the spirits that stand || by the naked man || in the Book of Moons, defend ye!
In later and freer verse forms, the caesura is optional. It can, however, be used for rhetorical effect, as in Alexander Pope's line:
- To err is human; || to forgive, divine.
- “caesura” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 3 March 2007