I. What is a Caesura?
“Caesura” (pronouced see-ZOO-ra) means “cut,” and it refers to a break or pause in the middle of a line of verse. It can be marked as || in the middle of the line, although generally it is not marked at all – it’s simply part of the way the reader or singer pronounces the line. In this article, we’ll include the || mark for the sake of clarity.
The plural of “caesura” is “caesurae.”
Caesura is a feature of verse, not prose, but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively restricted to poetry. In drama, notably the plays of William Shakespeare, there are often characters who speak in verse, and these characters may have caesurae in their lines.
III. Examples of Caesura
The lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” contain many caesurae, including the opening line: “Oh, say can you see || by the dawn’s early light…”
Children’s rhymes often have caesurae as well, for example in the rhyme “Song of Sixpence,” which contains the line “Four and twenty blackbirds, || baked in a pie.”
To be or not to be, || that is the question (William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”)
Nearly every performance of this line includes a caesura after the comma. Some actors might choose to read the line straight through with no pause, but it might sound a bit odd – try it out loud and see what the line sounds like without a caesura.
III. Types of Caesura
Caesurae are categorized based on where they appear in the line. Thus, there are three types:
- Initial Caesura: this is when the pause appears at or near the beginning of the line.
- Medial Caesura: the most common type of caesura, this is a pause in the middle of the line. Most of the examples in this article are medial caesura.
- Terminal Caesura: a pause appearing at or near the end of the line.
IV. The Importance of Caesura
In many classical meters, caesura was a requirement of certain lines. Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon poets were required to place caesurae in the middle of certain lines. Beowulf, the famous Anglo-Saxon epic poem, has a caesura in each of its lines. (Unfortunately, the English translations don’t preserve these caesurae very well.)
Modern forms are much more flexible than classical forms, so caesurae are no longer required in poetry. However, they may still be used when a poet wants to break up the rhythm of a poem. This might have the effect of a dramatic pause between one phrase and the next, or it might simply be an aesthetic choice. In the simplest cases, a caesura can help provide places for the reader/singer to breathe.
V. Examples of Caesura in Literature
The mud and leaves in the mauled lane
smelled sweet, like blood. || Birds had died or flown…
(Vernon Scannell, “Walking Wounded”)
This couplet from the first stanza of Scannell’s famous poem contains both enjambment and a caesura. The first line flows into the second with the line break coming in the middle of the sentence – that’s the enjambment. And in the second line, the period causes the reader to pause for a moment, creating a caesura.
Alexander Pope’s first major poem, “An Essay on Criticism,” contains one of the most famous caesurae in all of English literature:
to err is human; || to forgive, divine.
VI. Examples of Caesura in Pop Culture
The microphone explodes, || shattering the mold.
This lyric, the opening line of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade” contains a pronounced caesura right in the middle. As recorded, there’s a long pause in between “explodes” and “shattering.”
Lord forgive him, || he got them dark forces in him (Jay-Z)
This caesura straddles the line between initial and medial – it’s certainly not right in the middle of the line, but it’s a long way from the beginning of the line as well.
VII. Related Terms
Enjambment is almost like the opposite of caesura – rather than a pause within a single line, it’s when two lines run together without a pause or a break in meaning. In other words, it’s when a sentence carries on right through the line break. In these cases, readers are expected not to pause at the end of the line, but rather to continue reading straight through to the end of the sentence.