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What is Caesura?

Everyone speaks, and everyone breathes while speaking. Pauses come from natural rhythm of our speech. Poetry also uses pauses in its lines. One such pause is known as “Caesura”.

Caesura (/siˈzjʊərə/, pl. caesuras or caesurae; Latin for “cutting”), also written cæsura and cesura, is a rhythmical pause within a poetic line or sentence that breaks the regularity of the metrical pattern. Poets indicate such a pause in scansion by the sign ||. At times, it occurs with punctuation; at other times it does not.

The caesura sometimes is used to emphasize the formal metrical construction of a line, but it more often introduces the cadence of natural speech patterns and habits of phrasing into the metrical scheme.

The caesura may coincide with conventional punctuation marks, as in the following Shakespearean line, in which a strong pause is demanded after each comma for rhetorical expression:

This blessed plot, || this earth,
|| this realm,
|| this England, …

As earlier mentioned, the caesura is not necessarily set off by punctuation, in this line from John Keats:

Thou foster-child of silence || and
slow time,

Caesura can be medial (occurring in the middle of line), initial (occurring at the beginning of poetic line), or terminal (occurring at the end of a poetic line). For example:

Satan exalted sat || by merit raised.

— (Paradise Lost)

In formal, Romance, and Neoclassical verse, the caesura occurs most frequently in the middle of the line (medial caesura). In modern verse its place is flexible. It may occur near the beginning of one line (an initial caesura) and near the end of the next (terminal caesura).

There may be several caesuras within a single line or none at all. Thus, it has the effect of interposing the informal and irregular patterns of speech as a subtle counterpoint to the poem’s regular rhythm. It prevents metrical monotony and emphasizes the meaning of lines.

Types of Caesura

1. Feminine Caesura

A feminine caesural pause occurs after a non-stressed and short syllable in a poetic line. This is softer and less abrupt than the masculine version. For instance:

I hear lake water lapping || with low sounds by the shore’

— (The Lake Isle of Innisfree – W. B. Yeats)

This form has two sub-divisions:

  1. Epic Caesura — An epic caesura is a feminine caesura that follows an extra unstressed syllable that has been inserted in accentual iambic metre.

    An epic caesura occurs in these lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“but how of Cawdor?
The Thane of Cawdor lives.”

  1. Lyric Caesura — A lyric caesura is feminine caesura that follows an unstressed syllable normally required by the metre. It can be seen in A. E. Houseman’s:

“they cease not fighting
east and west.”

2. Masculine Caesura

Masculine pause occurs after a long or accented syllable in a line. It creates a Staccato effects in the poem, such as:

“of reeds and stalk-crickets, || finding the dank air”,

Other Examples of Caesura

  1. Tonight the moon rises
    In my window. || Its glazing light
    scattered around the room.
  2. From my balcony. || I see the stars
    Blistering in the river water much brighter.

Examples of Caesura in Literature

  1. My Last Duchess – Robert Browning
    E’en then would be some stooping; || and I choose
    Never to stop. || O sir, she smiled, no doubt.
    When’er I passed her; || but who passed without
    Much the same smile? || This grew;|| I gave commands
    Then all smiles stopped together. || There she stands
    As if alive. || Will’t please you rise? || We’ll meet
    The company below,|| then…
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