Definition of Caesura
A caesura is a complete stop in a line of poetry. A caesura can be anywhere in a metrical line—it is called an initial caesura if it occurs at or near the beginning of the line, a medial caesura if it is found in the middle of the line, and a terminal caesura if it occurs near the end of the line. The definition of caesura can be further classified either as masculine or feminine, depending on the syllable following the caesura. A stressed syllable following a caesura denotes a masculine caesura, whereas a feminine caesura is followed by an unstressed syllable. Caesurae are usually marked by a pair of parallel lines (“||”), called a “double pipe” sign. However, some caesura examples—usually more contemporary ones—are marked with other forms of punctuation.
The word caesura comes from the Latin word caedere, which means “to cut.”
Common Examples of Caesura
It is easy to find examples of caesura in famous speeches and songs. This is because caesurae happen naturally in regular speech patterns. We often take breaths or change direction in the middle of sentences, which gives rise to caesura examples. Here are some famous phrases that have caesurae in the middle (double pipes added for effect):
- “We hold these truths to be self-evident || that all men are created equal.”—Declaration of Independence, United States of America 1776
- My country ’tis of thee || sweet land of liberty || of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died || land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside || let freedom ring!
—“My Country, ’Tis of Thee” by Samuel Francis Smith
- Hey Jude || don’t make it bad
Take a sad song || and make it better
—“Hey Jude” by The Beatles
Significance of Caesura in Literature
Originally, the double pipes were used for the purpose of scansion, which is to say determining the metrical character of a line of verse. A reader could easily see that an audible pause was called for in a line of poetry with the double pipes. Caesura examples were very common in Ancient Greek and Ancient Latin poetry, which both emphasized the importance of meter. Caesurae help to highlight the meter in a line of verse. Old English poetry also included examples of caesura in almost every line, as this type of poetry did not generally involve rhyme or meter; the preferred methods of creating euphony and poetic unity were through consonance and medial caesurae.
While caesurae was particularly important in the poetic works of ancient cultures, there are many caesura examples in contemporary poetry as well. There may not be quite as many rules regarding its usage now. However, most people add natural and frequent breaks in the middle of lines when speaking normally. Thus, when contemporary poets make their verse resemble natural speech it is common to use caesurae.
Examples of Caesura in Literature
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
(The Iliad by Homer)
Homer used many examples of caesura in his epic The Iliad. The opening line of the entire epic, translated above as “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles” was originally written μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ || Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος. The medial caesura is evident here just from looking at the symbols, even if you don’t read Greek. The break would be between “sing the rage” and “of Peleus’ son Achilles.” Though there is not a natural break there in English, the translator attempted to keep the sense of the caesura by creating other breaks such as between “Rage” and “Goddess,” and “Goddess” and “sing.”
Arms and the man I sing, who, forced by fate
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore.
(The Aeneid, Book I by Virgil)
The opening of Virgil’s Aeneid also includes examples of caesura. Again, the first line was originally written: Arma virumque cano || Troiae qui primus ab oris. The medial caesura is shown here with the double pipes marking. The translator from Latin kept the sound of the caesura examples by creating breaks in the first and third lines, between “sing” and “who,” and “exiled” and “left,” respectively.
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
As his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
And begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
(Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney)
The anonymously written Old English epic Beowulf was masterfully translated by contemporary poet Seamus Heaney. Heaney worked to retain the most important aspects of the poem, which were the medial caesurae in every line and the emphasis on consonance. He marks the caesurae with punctuation such as commas and periods. For example, in the first line there is a caesura between “Sheafson” and “scourge,” and a much larger break in the final line of this stanza between “tribute” and “that.” The caesurae in this poem help to create rhythm and regularity.
Dead ! One of them shot by the sea in the east,
And one of them shot in the west by the sea.
Dead ! both my boys ! When you sit at the feast
And are wanting a great song for Italy free,
Let none look at me !
(“Mother and Poet” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses all three types of caesurae in her poem “Mother and Poet.” In the above stanza we can see examples of initial caesurae in the lines beginning with the single word “Dead!” Barrett Browning also uses a medial caesura in the line “both my boys! When you sit…” In another part of the poem she uses a terminal caesura in this line: “No voice says “My mother” again to me. What!”
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
(“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost)
Robert Frost uses many caesura examples in his poetry. In his famous poem “Mending Wall,” there are natural breaks between “down” and “I,” and “himself” and “I.” Frost marks these metrical pauses with punctuation, periods in these cases.
All of these waves crepitate from the culture of Ovid,
its sibilants and consonants; a universal metre
piles up these signatures like inscriptions of seaweed
that dry in the pungent sun, lines ruled by mitre
and laurel, or spray swiftly garlanding the forehead
of an outcrop…
(“The Bounty” by Derek Walcott)
Derek Walcott, a contemporary Caribbean poet, uses many caesura examples in his poem “The Bounty.” The above excerpt from the poem shows how closely the devices of caesura and enjambment are linked. Walcott chooses to break lines in the middle and write many lines that run on to the next line (only one of the above lines is an end stopped line). It is common especially in contemporary poetry for caesura examples to be accompanied with strong enjambment.
Test Your Knowledge of Caesura
1. Which of the following statements is the best caesura definition?
A. Lines that end without punctuation and without completing a sentence or clause.
B. A line in verse which ends with punctuation, either to show the completion of a phrase or sentence.
C. A break in a metrical line, usually marked with punctuation.
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2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Masculine caesurae are breaks followed by a stressed syllable.
B. A medial caesura occurs at the beginning of a line.
C. Caesura examples are not found in contemporary poetry.
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3. Which of the sets of following lines from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” contains an example of caesura?
Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
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