Line Break

Definition of Line Break

A line break refers to where an author has chosen to end one line in a poem and begin another. A line break can either be an example of enjambment, which means the author has chosen to end a line without completing a sentence or clause, or can be an end stopped line, which is a line that completes a sentence or clause. The presence or absence of punctuation is usually an indication as to whether the line break is an example of enjambment or an end stopped line.

Common Examples of Line Break

Though generally line breaks matter most in poetry, they also can be found in music. Songwriters, rappers, librettists, and so on choose where to end lines to create rhyme or fit in a certain beat. Here are some examples of songs in which line breaks have a particular aesthetic function:

Cutie the bomb
Met her at a beauty salon
With a baby Louis Vuitton
Under her underarm
She said I can tell you rock
I can tell by your charm
Far as girls you got a flock
I can tell by your charm and your arm
But I’m looking for the one
Have you seen her?

(“Gold Digger” by Kanye West)

AARON BURR: Well, the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and
The world is gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?”

(Libretto from “Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda)

Hello, can you hear me?
I’m in California dreaming about who we used to be
When we were younger and free
I’ve forgotten how it felt before the world fell at our feet

(“Hello” by Adele)

Significance of Line Break in Literature

Though the definition of line break may seem relatively straightforward, the place at which a poet chooses to break a line is extremely important to the meaning and strength of a particular line (once referred to as a verse), as well as to a poem’s overall integrity. A poet might choose, for example, to break lines in certain places to preserve the correct meter or to create rhyme. Poets may even break lines in the middle of a word.

The choice of where to break a line also affects the way a reader feels about a poem; enjambment works to speed the poem up and end stopped lines slow the poem down. These breaks may also feel natural and soothing, or jagged and unpredictable; the poet may choose line breaks to reflect the tone or environment of the poem. Poets can also choose to begin each new line with or without capitalization, independent of whether the previous line is end-stopped. We will see examples of both of these cases below.

Furthermore, when scholars analyze a poem they first look to how each line functions independently from the rest of the poem; it can be very aesthetically pleasing when a line works one way on its own, but has a different meaning when considered with the lines that precede or follow it.

Examples of Line Break in Literature

Example #1

PORTIA: The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

(The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)

In the above speech by Portia acting as a lawyer in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, we can find excellent examples of both enjambment and end stopped lines. Thus, this is a good way to study how an example of line breaks can function. Perhaps the best enjambment in this speech is in the fifth line, where we end with the word “becomes,” expecting that mercy will be said to transform into something. Instead, Shakespeare surprises by using the meaning of the word “becomes” of “suiting someone well.” Unlike in many of his poems and plays, this speech is not regular in its meter or rhyme; instead, it is free verse, leaving Portia free to extrapolate on the meaning of mercy.

Example #2

I cry your mercy—pity—love!—aye, love!
Merciful love that tantalizes not,
One-thoughted, never-wandering, guileless love,
Unmasked, and being seen—without a blot!
O! let me have thee whole,—all—all—be mine!
That shape, that fairness, that sweet minor zest
Of love, your kiss,—those hands, those eyes divine,
That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast,
Yourself—your soul—in pity give me all,
Withhold no atom’s atom or I die
Or living on perhaps, your wretched thrall,
Forget, in the mist of idle misery,
Life’s purposes,—the palate of my mind
Losing its gust, and my ambition blind!

(“I cry your mercy-pity-love! -aye, love!” by John Keats)

Just as with William Shakespeare, the Romantic poet John Keats chose to begin each line with a capital letter, whether or not it followed an end stopped line. Most of his lines are end stopped, as we can see above, though Keats sometimes chooses enjambment as well to keep the rhyme scheme. This poem is an ardent declaration of love, and Keats’s choice to write many end stopped lines here almost seems necessary to slow him down from getting even more excited.

Example #3

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

(“‘Faith’ is fine invention” by Emily Dickinson)

This very short poem by Emily Dickinson—it only consists of the above quatrain—contains both enjambment and end stopped lines. The rhyme and short length of lines contribute to the feeling that the poem is a witty little epigram.

Example #4

e this park is e
ody’s elsewher
e except me 6 e
nglish sparrow
utumn & t
he rai

(By E. E. Cummings)

The poet E. E. Cummings rebelled against many poetic conventions, not least of them the capitalization of words. He did not capitalize the beginnings of lines, and, indeed, did not capitalize anything at all (including his own name at times). This short poem is an excellent line break example because it’s one of those unique poems where the author has chosen to break a line in the middle of a word. He doesn’t do this for meter or rhyme, however, but to emphasize the meanings of the words: diminutive and empty, for example. His line breaks are an essential part to this poem’s integrity.

Example #5

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

(“Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich)

Adrienne Rich is the most contemporary of the poets in these examples, and utilizes the most contemporary conventions in line breaks. In these two stanzas we can see her choice to write short, end-stopped lines (“I came to explore the wreck. / The words are purposes. / The words are maps.”) as well as longer, more flowing and enjambed lines (the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth / the drowned face always staring / toward the sun). Together, these aesthetic choices affect the mood of each individual line and make the reader consider how each individual word is functioning.

Test Your Knowledge of Line Break

1. Which of the following statements is the correct line break definition?
A. A line in poetry which ends in punctuation to show completion of a sentence or clause.
B. A verse which ends without punctuation and where the meaning carries to the next line.
C. A choice the poet has made about where to end one line and begin another.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Consider the opening lines of William Shakespeare’s prologue to Romeo and Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

What example of line breaks can be found here?
A. Enjambment
B. End stopped lines
C. Both enjambment and end stopped lines.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following statements is false?
A. Enjambment slows a poem down, while end stopped lines speed the reading experience up.
B. Line breaks can be used for many reasons, including to preserve meter, rhyme, and tone.
C. Line breaks can occur in the middle of clauses, and even in the middle of words.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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