Definition of Enjambment
Enjambment is a term used in poetry to refer to lines that end without punctuation and without completing a sentence or clause. When a poet uses enjambment, he or she continues a sentence beyond the end of the line into a subsequent line or lines. Enjambment is also sometimes thought of as the running on of a thought beyond a line or stanza without a syntactical break. This is the opposite of an end stopped line, in which a line ends in the same place a sentence or clause ends with terminal punctuation.
The word enjambment comes from the 18th-century French word for “to stride over” or “encroach.” And, indeed, as we can see from the definition of enjambment, a poetic image or phrase straddles more than one line before it comes to a syntactic break.
Common Examples of Enjambment
While enjambment is used more or less solely within the confines of discussing poetry, it can be applied to analyzing speech patterns as well. Consider the way humans say sentences naturally—we often pause in the middle of ideas or phrases, whether to emphasize a particular word or thought, to pivot toward a different conversational direction, or simply to consider what to say next.
There is a popular children’s clapping game that makes use of enjambment called “Miss Susie.” Each stanza of the rhyme seems to end in a bad word, but through enjambment is converted to an innocent one. Here are the first few stanzas:
Miss Susie had a steamboat,
the steamboat had a bell.
Miss Susie went to heaven
and the steamboat went to Hell–
Please give me number nine
And if you disconnect me
I’ll kick your be–
’hind the ’frigerator,
there was a piece of glass
Miss Susie sat upon it
and broke her little…
Significance of Enjambment in Literature
Enjambment may seem like it belongs more to the era of free verse than the stricter poetic forms that were popular up until the twentieth century. However, it has been an important poetic device for many hundreds of years. Note that it is primarily a device used in poetry, yet lyrical playwrights such as Shakespeare used enjambment in their soliloquys and dialogues. It is not a term applied to prose, as the tension that enjambment creates is a slight conflict between the syntactic unit of meaning and the unit of meaning contained in a line. In prose there is no distinction between these two things, as readers know that when they come to the end of a line due to the size of the page they are supposed to continue onto the next line without any pause.
While it may seem like a poet can break a line wherever he or she pleases, accomplished poets use enjambment very intentionally. Usually the line that is created through enjambment holds it own meaning even though it is not a complete syntactical thought. We will explore this further in the examples of enjambment below. However, some novice readers of poetry mistakenly believe they are supposed to come to a complete halt at the end of a line even though there is no end punctuation. This is not the case—in poetry it’s important to consider the line on its own but also as a part of the greater whole.
Examples of Enjambment in Literature
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
Laid out by the mast, amidships,
The great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
Were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
With battle tackle, bladed weapons
And coats of mail. The massed treasure
Was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
On out into the ocean’s sway.
(Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney)
Enjambment plays a large role in works all the way back to the Old English epic Beowulf. This excerpt is interesting in the enjambment that results in these two lines: “The great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures…” and “And coats of mail. The massed treasure….” In both of these lines we can see that there is a syntactical break halfway through, and yet the line itself holds some contextual continuity, as both the image of a “ring-giver” and “coats of mail” easily blend with the references to “treasure.” The anonymous poet used enjambment to allow the listener to make more connections between the different syntactical units.
HAMLET: 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 heartache, 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!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
In this excerpt, Shakespeare uses much more enjambment than end-stopped lines, and keeps linking ideas from one line to the next. This propels Hamlet’s soliloquy forward with a lot of momentum as he is considering the question of the meaning of existence.
I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.
(“To the Harbormaster” by Frank O’Hara)
It’s clear that a poet is using a lot of enjambment examples when it’s difficult to find a short excerpt. Here O’Hara’s poem is presented in full, as the only fully end-stopped line is the very final one. As in the example from Hamlet this use of enjambment propels the reader forward. When considered by themselves, the lines present interesting juxtapositions, such as “in some moorings. I am always tying up…” and “around my fathomless arms, I am unable….” The enjambment of “yet / I trust the sanity of my vessel” helps to give pause—the poet has been listing all the challenges of reaching his love, but at the word “yet,” the poem pivots and offers a more hopeful conclusion.
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
(“Birches” by Robert Frost)
Just as in the example of enjambment from Frank O’Hara, we can analyze this excerpt from Robert Frost’s “Birches” line by line. The first three lines comprise one full sentence, yet by breaking them where Frost does they make the reader pause and consider each line as a unit of content. For example, “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them” can stand alone as a thought. Later in this enjambment example we get the line “After a rain. They click upon themselves…” which presents an interesting juxtaposition.
Test Your Knowledge of Literature
1. Which of the following statements is the best enjambment definition?
A. The continuation of a thought from one line to the next.
B. Poetic lines that end with a semi-colon but not a period or question mark.
C. The type of line that free-verse poets use.
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2. Which of the following types of literature does not use enjambment?
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3. Which of the following pairs of lines from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” contains an example of enjambment?
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
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