Caesura

When you read a poem out loud, you instinctively pause at certain words or lines, and often modulate your voice to emphasise certain words and phrases. What are these techniques concerning pauses and breaks in poetry called? The answer: Caesura! Read on to find out more about this technical term in poetry.

Caesura Caesura

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    Caesura definition

    Caesura is a technique that describes a pause or stoppage in a line of poetry. This pause can be created with the help of punctuation, such as a comma, full-stop, or a colon. Caesura doesn't have to be a definitive pause, it can be anything between a momentary stop or an arrangement of words and letters in a way that gives the impression of a break.

    Whilst we can spot caesura when we see a comma, colon, semicolon, or full-stop in the middle of a line of poetry, caesura is often indicated by the use of lines, either slashed (//) or upright (||).

    For example:

    'Mirror' by Sylvia Plath (1971)

    I am silver and exact. || I have no preconceptions.

    Whatever I see I swallow immediately

    Just as it is, || unmisted by love or dislike

    I am not cruel, || only truthful

    The eye of a little god, || four-cornered

    Plath uses a full-stop and a comma to create momentary stops in the lines of poetry to disrupt the flow of the poem and emphasise particular words and phrases to reinforce the meaning of the poem.

    The comma between 'I am not cruel' and 'only truthful' slows the pace of the poem, forcing the reader to slow down and ponder the idea of the mirror as a cruel and truthful thing.

    Types of Caesura and example

    Different types of caesuras include masculine caesura, feminine caesura, medial caesura and terminal caesura.

    Type of Caesura definition
    Masculine Caesura Caesura followed by a stressed or long syllable
    Feminine CaesuraCaesura followed by an unstressed or short syllable
    Medial CaesuraMedial caesura occurs in the middle of a line, dividing it into equal parts
    Terminal CaesuraCaesura at the end of a line of poetry, typically following a medial caesura

    Let's look at some examples of different types of caesura:

    Caesura in Literature

    Masculine Caesura

    'Mother and Poet' (1862) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    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.

    This poem contains multiple examples of masculine caesura, indicated by ||. The sounds that follow the caesura are stressed when spoken aloud. For example, in the line 'What art can a woman be good at? || Oh vain!', 'Oh' is an exclamatory expression, hence the stress. As the stressed 'Oh' follows an unstressed syllable, it is an example of masculine caesura.

    In the following line, 'What art is she good at, || but hurting her breast',' the use of 'but' is indicative of a masculine caesura. 'B' is a bilabial sound, which is a sound made when both lips are tightly pressed together, emphasising the stress on the word 'but'. The fact that the stressed 'b' sound follows the unstressed word 'at,' makes it an example of masculine caesura as the caesura occurs prior to the stressed syllable.

    Feminine Caesura

    'I Being Born a Woman and Distressed' (1923) by Edna St Vincent Millay

    Your person fair, || and feel a certain zest

    To bear your body's weight upon my breast:

    Here, the caesura occurs in the first line after 'Your person fair'. The following word 'and' is unstressed, making this an example of feminine caesura. 'And' only has one syllable, making it a short syllable word, further exemplifying Millay's use of feminine caesura as the pause occurs prior to the unstressed short syllable word.

    Medial Caesura

    A Winters Tale (1623) by Shakespeare

    It is for you we speak, II not for ourselves;

    You are abused, II and by some putter-on- Act 2, Scene 1

    As the double lines indicate, the caesura occurs in the middle of the line making it a medial caesura as both lines are equally divided into two parts.

    Terminal Caesura

    'Wild Oats' (2004) by Phillip Larkin

    Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.

    Unlucky charms, perhaps.

    In the last two lines of the poem, Larkin uses caesura to amplify his uncertainty, emphasising the word 'perhaps'. This is an example of terminal caesura as the pause (created by the comma) happens before the final line of the poem.

    Placement of Caesura

    Throughout history, caesura has differed in its placement in poetry. In neoclassical and romantic verse, caesura commonly appears in the middle of the line (medial caesura). However, in modern contexts the placement of caesura is more changeable, occurring at the start, middle, or end of a line (terminal caesura).

    Caesura, a stack of books, StudySmarterA stack of books.

    Caesura effects in poetry

    Effects of caesura in literature

    • Disrupting the flow of the text with a pause or break in a line
    • Placing emphasis on certain words, phrases, and ideas
    • Replicating conversational tone / flow of language
    • Reinforcing the meaning of a poem

    Let's look at examples of these effects of caesura in literature

    Caesura Examples

    Task: Can you identify what types of caesura the following examples are? Are they masculine, feminine, terminal, or medial?

    Disruption of flow

    'Tich Miller' (1986) by Wendy Cope from her collection Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis

    The following lines describe an interaction between two people picked last in a PE (sports) lesson in school:

    We avoided one another's eyes,

    Stooping, || perhaps, || to re-tie a shoelace,

    Or affecting interest in the flight

    Cope's use of caesura in the second line disrupts the flow of the text, mirroring the jaunty awkwardness of trying to avoid eye contact with another person. Can you think of a time when you know someone is looking at you and are trying not to catch their eye, the awkward feeling of being watched? The disjointed nature of this line embodies the awkwardness of the scenario Cope is writing about.

    Emphasizing words, phrases, and ideas

    'A Proud Blemish' (2017) by Kayo Chingonyi from his collection Kumukanda

    She's dying but I won't call her dead, || can't let mum

    Become a body, || a stone, || an empty hospital bed.

    Chingonyi's use of caesura highlights the saddest parts of the lines, emotionally charging the poem. These are the last two lines of the poem. All the other stanzas of the poem except the one written here are 4 lines long. The fact that the final stanza, in which he talks about his mothers' death, is only two lines long, signifies his loss and emulates the fact he has lost his mother, someone who completes him, as this stanza appears incomplete in comparison to the others. The way the caesura emphasises the dying of his mother demonstrates how caesura can reinforce the meaning of the poem by shining light on themes and ideas (such as loss).

    The caesura singles out the imagery of a stone as the phrase 'a stone' is isolated by commas. We are left with the startling image of a stone, cold and lifeless, a state that the poet wishes their mother is never found in. We experience her being dead before she actually is, as the caesura forces the image of her as cold and lifeless as a stone to the forefront of our minds.

    Replicating a conversational tone / the flow of language

    'Aurora Leigh' (1856) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (verse novel)

    When wondered at for smiling; || not so far,

    But I still catch my mother at her post

    Beside the nursery-door, || with finger up,

    'Hush, hush - here's too much noise!' while her sweet eyes

    Leap forward, || taking part against her wordIn the child's riot. || Still I sit and feelMy father's slow hand, || when she had left us both

    The momentary pauses created by the semicolon in the first line and the commas dotted throughout replicate the flow of conversation. As a verse novel rather than a standard poem, the caesura helps make the text read more like prose rather than traditional poetry. The prose-like nature of the poem makes it easier to tell a story whilst keeping the lyrical undertones, as poetry is typically more cryptic than prose.

    Reinforcing the meaning of the poem

    'For My Lover Returning to His Wife' by Anne Sexton (1968)

    She has always been there, my darling.

    She is, in fact, exquisite.

    Fireworks in the dull middle of February

    and as real as a cast iron pot.Let's face it, I have been momentary.A luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbor

    This poem is about a woman realising that her husband is having an affair. The poem reveals the speaker's state of melancholic acceptance that comes with her realisation.

    Sexton's use of caesura emphasises words and phrases that signpost her emotions. In the first line, the pause highlights the phrase 'my darling'. This phrase is emotionally charged. It is sad that to hear her refer to her husband as 'darling,' as it reminds readers of their previous love which has now dissipated, making 'darling' an awkward word for her to use as it doesn't describe their relationship anymore. It also makes readers feel sorry for her as it suggests she still has some romantic feelings for him, or maybe she uses this phrase to induce guilt.

    The caesura in the second line slows the pace of the poem, with the unnecessary inclusion of the phrase 'in fact', suggesting the speaker is in a state of melancholy numbness. She doesn't tear the other woman down but rather highlights her beauty, emphasised by the pause before 'exquisite', which highlights her low self-esteem. She diminishes her own beauty in comparison to her husband's lover. It almost seems like she expected her husband to cheat on her as she does not view herself as a true asset to his life. This is further implied by the line 'let's face it, I have been momentary'. She never believed she was good enough to have a healthy, happy, and long-term marriage.

    The pause after 'a luxury' highlights how women were viewed / treated in the 1960s. Sexton wrote this poem prior to second-wave feminism starting in the 1970s. Women at the time were perceived as luxuries tacked on to the already complete life of a man.

    Fun fact: Anne Sexton was well known for having a very deep voice, meaning listening to her poetry aloud was popular amongst her readers. Hearing her read her poems aloud elevated the meaning of her poetry, enriching the experience of her work.

    Which types of caesura create different effects?

    Type of caesura Disruption of flowEmphasizing words and ideasReplicating conversationReinforcing textual meaning
    Medial By stopping a sentence midway through the flow of the line is disrupted. It is more difficult for medial caesura to emphasise particular ideas because it occurs directly in the middle of a line, rather than isolating a word or phrase between two pauses in a line. It is natural to pause midway through a sentence, therefore this type of caesura is effective in emulating conversation. It is hard for this type of caesura to specifically emphasise one particular idea due to its placement in the centre of a line. It could reinforce the meaning of the text but it would be more uncommon for medial caesura to do this than other types of caesura.
    Terminal It is strange to stop just before the end of your sentence, therefore this type of caesura easily disrupts the flow of language. Terminal caesura often singles out single words and ideas, leaving them in the forefront of readers minds just before they finish the text. Typically people do not stop right before the end of their sentence. Due to disruption, terminal caesura is less effective in replicating the natural flow of conversation. This type of caesura is very effective in singling out words and ideas, therefore it is easy for it to be used to reinforce the meaning behind a text.
    Feminine As this type of caesura can occur anywhere in a line, it has the potential to disrupt the flow of language. As this type of caesura can be anywhere in a line it has the ability to emphasise words and ideas. As this type of caesura could be anywhere in a line it can easily replicate conversation. As this type of caesura can appear anywhere in a line it is able to reinforce textual meaning.
    Masculine As this type of caesura can be used anywhere in a line, it has the ability to disrupt the flow of language.

    This type of caesura can occur anywhere in a line, it lays emphasis on words and ideas.

    As this type of caesura could be anywhere in a line, it has the potential to replicate conversation. As this type of caesura can appear anywhere in a line it can reinforce textual meaning.

    Examples of Caesura in Literature

    Whilst caesura is considered a poetic technique, it is not limited to poetry. It can also be used in free verse and music. Shakespeare uses caesura in his plays, wherein many characters have pauses in their lines.

    Iago's soliloquy in Othello (1605)

    That Cassio loves her, I do well believe't:

    That she loves him, 'tis apt and of great credit.

    The Moor - howbeit that I endure him not—

    Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,And, I dare think, he'll prove to DesdemonaA most dear husband. Now, I do love her too;Not out of absolute lust— though peradventureI stand accountant for as great a sin--Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 277-285

    Similar to how caesura was used in 'Aurora Lee' by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the pauses inserted in Iago's soliloquy replicate the natural flow of speech. When we talk, we pause to consider our thoughts and think about what to say next. Shakespeare's use of caesura makes Iago's speech seem more authentic and realistic and it leaves him space to ponder how his plan will unravel.

    Caesura - Key takeaways

    • Caesura is a poetic technique that describes a pause or stoppage in a line of poetry. Caesura doesn't have to be a definitive pause, it can be anything between a momentary stop or an illusion to a break in a line.
    • The pause can be created using punctuation, such as a comma, full-stop, or a colon.
    • Caesura can sometimes be expressed by the use of lines, either slashed (//) or upright (||).
    • There are four main types of caesura, feminine, masculine, medial (caesura in the middle of a line of poetry), and terminal (caesura at the end of a line of poetry, using following a medial caesura).
    • Authors use caesura to create different effects in literature, such as disrupting the flow of the text, placing emphasis on certain words, phrases, and ideas, replicating conversational tone/flow of language, and reinforcing the meaning of a poem.
    • Caesura is primarily viewed as a poetic technique but it can also be used in free verses in plays. It was commonly used by Shakespeare.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Caesura

    What is an example of a caesura?

    Your person fair, || and feel a certain zest  

    To bear your body's weight upon my breast:


    Here, the caesura occurs in the first line after 'Your person fair'.

    What is a caesura line in poetry?

    In a line of poetry, caesuras can occur in different places. These different types of caesuras are the masculine, feminine, medial and terminal caesuras. The type is determined by where the caesura is identified in a line of poetry.

    What is caesura and how is it used?

    Caesura is a poetic technique that describes a pause or stoppage in a line of poetry. It is used to:

    • Disrupt the flow of a text
    • Place emphasis on certain words
    • Replicate the tone of a conversation
    • Reinforce certain meanings and themes of a text

    How do you mark a caesura?

    Whilst we can spot caesura when we see a comma, colon, semicolon, or full-stop in the middle of a line of poetry, caesura are often indicated by the use of lines, either slashed (//) or upright (||).

    what is caesura?

    Caesura is a poetic technique that describes a pause or stoppage in a line of poetry. This pause can be created with the help of punctuation, such as a comma, full-stop, or a colon.

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