Enjambment occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. This technique encourages a reader down to the next line of a poem, and then the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence.
The word comes from the French “enjambment” meaning to “step over” or “put legs across”. In poetry, it refers to lines that transition without end-punctuation. This is a kind of punctuation that includes periods, semi-colons, and colons. The lines run into one another, breaking before a sentence is finished.
Purpose of Enjambment
This technique is used to increase the pace of a poem. If used frequently it can speed up a reader’s progression through the lines. It might also be used to create emphasis or drama at a particular moment. Sometimes it is used to merge ideas together, allowing a reader to consider multiple things at once without the end-punctuation to separate them.
Examples of Enjambment in Poetry
Example #1 Beauty by Edward Thomas
This poem contains the poet’s definition of what beauty is and how he encounters and experiences it in his life. It walks the reader through what beauty is in his life and how it influences him and his perception of the world. The poet uses enjambment to help create a steady flow of words in this work. Leading the reader from one idea to the next.
Take a look at the first six and a half lines of this piece for several examples of enjambment:
What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph-
‘Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.’ Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied. […]
Within this section of the poem, he speaks on what beauty is, what it means and how one is changed by it. The transition between lines two and three, as well as three and four, are particularly impactful.
Example #2 Suicide Note by Langston Hughes
‘Suicide’s Note’ is a short emotional poem that speaks very simply and peacefully on life suicide and death. The lines address common themes in Hughes’ poems, these include life, hopelessness, suicide and death. Enjambment is used to increase the dramatic atmosphere. Here are the second and third lines.
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
Enjambment occurs between all three lines of ‘Suicide Note’. The revelation held within the third line is made all the more impactful by the line break after “river”. The power of this poem comes from what is left unsaid. The three simple lines allude to a lot, and in combination with the title, create an expectant atmosphere. They leave the reader wondering if the speaker went through with a suicide attempt or if this poem is a different kind of message.
Example #3 The house was still—the room was still by Charlotte Brontë
This poem is a fragment of an unfinished work that speaks on freedom and captivity. Enjambment is used throughout the poem, leading every line into the next without end-punctuation. Due to the unfinished nature of this work, and the flowing rhythm of the lines, this poem has a haunting quality, especially at its conclusion. Here are the first five lines of the poem:
The house was still – the room was still
‘Twas eventide in June
A caged canary to the sun
Then setting – trilled a tune
A free bird on that lilac bush
The poet contrasted her use of enjambment against the use of em dashes within the text. They encourage the reader to pause and consider what has just been said. The dashes also represent quiet moments in the narrative itself. For example, the dash after “He listened long” in the seventh line represents the moments of silence when the “free bird” listened. The same can be said for the dash in the eighth line. This time though it represents the moment the bird replied.
The second half of the poem is also worth considering:
Outside the lattice heard
He listened long – there came a hush
He dropped an answering word –
The prisoner to the free replied
The last line, although history tells us it is unfinished, is powerful as it is. It leaves a reader to wonder what was said between the two and how their positions might change or remain the same.