A caesura is a break or pause in the middle of a line of verse. These breaks can be towards the beginning or the end of a line.
Readers can find examples of caesura by analyzing their own patterns of speech when reading poetry. Sometimes they are marked by punctuation, such as commas or dashes, while others are simply implied. The word “caesura” comes from the Latin meaning “cut” and the plural is “caesurae”. This technique is used in poetry rather than prose, although it can be found in some prose poetry.
Explore the term 'Caesura'
Definition and Explanation of Caesura
The word caesura refers to a break or pause in a line of metrical, or unmetered, poetry. As stated above, the break can appear towards the beginning or the end of the line, but in metered poetry, it usually falls right in the middle. Some poets make these breaks very clear by inserting commas, others are even more obvious when the writer chooses to use a period or other type of end-punctuation in the middle of the line. The pause might be very brief or slightly longer depending on the line and the type of punctuation. In scansion, caesura are written with two vertical lines, ||.
Examples of Caesura in Literature
‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This is one of the best examples of a masculine caesura. Browning makes the pauses extremely clear by using end punctuation in the first stanza, as well as the ones that follow.
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 !
The use of exclamation marks after “Dead” in lines one and three as well as “boys” in line three are perfect examples of long, very direct pauses. The reader has no choice but to pause for a moment at these words. “Dead” is an example of an initial caesura and “boys” is an example of a medial caesura.
In ‘Tate’s Avenue’ Heaney supplies the reader with two good examples of caesura in the first lines of the poem. Here is the first stanza:
Not the brown and fawn car rug, that first one
Spread on sand by the sea but breathing land-breaths,
Its vestal folds unfolded, its comfort zone
Edged with a fringe of sepia-coloured wool tails.
Heaney doesn’t use quite as strong punctuation in these lines as Browning does in hers, but the effect is similar. In the first and third lines, readers are asked to pause for a moment in the middle of the lines.
By now readers should be able to spot the very obvious example of a caesura in the title of the poem (which is also the first line). Here are the two stanzas of Dickinson’s piece:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Within these two lines, there are numerous examples of caesura due in part to Dickinson’s characteristic use of dashes. One of the best appears in the fourth lines where there is an initial caesura and a terminal caesura.
Locations of Caesurae
There are three major kinds of caesura.
- Medial Caesura: are the most common of the three locations caesar appears. This is due to the long history of metrical verse and the ease of placing pauses in the middle of lines rather than towards the beginning or the end. Medieval poetry is often cited as a genre that often uses these pauses.
- Initial Caesrua: as the name suggests, an initial caesura appears near or at the beginning of a line of verse. There is a good example in Browning’s ‘Mother and Poet’ above.
- Terminal Caesura: appear towards the end of lines. They are sometimes the easiest to spot. The fourth line of Dickinson’s ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?” has a good example of this kind of caesura.
Types of Caesura
A feminine caesural pause is one of two types of caesura that poets can use in their writing. It appears after an un-stressed/short syllable in a line of verse. It is softer and less jarring than the masculine caesural pause discussed below.
There are two sub-types of feminine caesura. They are:
- Epic: is a kind of feminine caesura that follows an extra unstressed syllable within a line of iambic pentameter. One of the most commonly cited examples is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “but how of Cawdor? / The Thane of Cawdor lives”.
- Lyric: is a kind of feminine caesura that follows a regular unstressed syllable.
A masculine caesural pause appears after a long or stressed syllable of a line. It has a stronger effect on the reader and can create a staccato effect in a poem.
Caesura in Music
In music, caesura refers to the same kind of pause as it does in poetry. It means total silence, but only for a moment. It is also a moment for musicians to catch their breath. In notation, just as in scansion, it is marked by double lines, this time slanted like //. These are sometimes referred to as railroad tracks.
Although there are no specific words that mean the same exact thing as caesura, some similar words that might be used to refer to a caesural pause are “break,” “pause,” “interval,” “rest,” “cut,” and “stop”.
Why Do Writers Use Caesurae?
Caesurae are used to create different effects within poetry, these can range in regards to how exactly the pause is used. By inserting a period, comma, or other kinds of punctuation into a poem, the writer breaks the meter (if there is one). This can help draw attention to a specific word or to a moment in the poem. It might also be used simply to change the meter up. The pause might be dramatic or suspenseful in some way. It might also add a touch of emotion to a line or the larger narrative.
Related Literary Terms
- Anapaestic Meter: depends on three-syllable sections of verse, or words. It is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
- Trochaic Meter: the exact opposite of iambic pentameter, meaning that the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed.
- Spondaic Meter: is an arrangement of two syllables in which both are stressed.
- Iambic Meter: the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed in a metrical foot.
- Enjambment: occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.
- Listen for Examples of Caesura in Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf
- Listen for Examples of Caesura in Music
- “The Most Perfectly Placed Silences in Classical Music”