Poetry Kaleidoscope: Guide to Poetry

Cęsura

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A cęsura, in prosody, is an audible pause that breaks up a long line of verse. Also used in musical notation as a complete cessation of musical time.

Cęsurę figure prominently in Greek and Latin versification, especially in the heroic verse form, dactylic hexameter.

Examples

Latin

Virgil's opening line of the Ęneid:

Arma virumque cano, || Troię qui primus ab oris
("I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy. . .")

displays an obvious cęsura in the middle of the line [this is of course not the middle of the verse, as the writer says, the caesura is the so called penthemimeres (or B1 or masculine caesura). the middle would be after the third (leaving apart, that a hexameter is katalectic), but not in the third foot], its usual position. The cęsura can move around freely in the lines of dactylic hexameter. Technically, in dactylic hexameter, a cęsura occurs anytime when the ending of a word coincides with the ending of a metrical foot; it is usually only called one when the ending also coincides with an audible pause in speaking the line. The ancient elegiac couplet form of the Greeks and Romans contained a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of pentameter; the pentameter often displayed an even more obvious cęsura:

Cynthia prima fuit; || Cynthia finis erit.
("Cynthia was the first; Cynthia will be the last" — Horace)

Old English

But the cęsura was even more important to Old English verse than it was to Latin or Greek poetry. In Latin or Greek poetry, the cęsura could be suppressed for effect in any line at will. In the alliterative verse that is shared by most of the oldest Germanic languages, the cęsura is an ever-present and necessary part of the verse form itself. Consider the opening line of Beowulf:

Hwęt! we Gar-Dena || on geardagum
("Lo! we Spear-Danes, in days of yore. . .")

Middle English

But compare that with some lines from William Langland's Piers Plowman:

I loked on my left half || as že lady me taughte
And was war of a womman || worželi ycložed.
("I looked on my left side, as the lady told me to, and perceived an expensively dressed woman.")

Modern English

Now, compare that to lines from Hilary Duff's Wake Up:

Wake up, wake up || on a Saturday night

Classification

A masculine cęsura is one that occurs after a stressed syllable; a feminine cęsura follows an unstressed syllable.

Cęsuraę can occur in later forms of verse; in these, though, they are usually optional. The so-called ballad metre, or the common metre of the hymnodists, is usually thought of as a line of iambic tetrameter followed by a line of trimeter, but it can also be considered a line of heptameter with a fixed cęsura at the fourth foot. Considering the break as a cęsura in these verse forms, rather than a beginning of a new line, explains how sometimes multiple cęsurę can be found in this verse form (from the limerick Tom o' Bedlam):

From the hag and hungry goblin || that into rags would rend ye,
And the spirits that stand || by the naked man || in the Book of Moons, defend ye!

In later and freer verse forms, the cęsura is optional. It can, however, be used for rhetorical effect, as in Alexander Pope's line:

To err is human; || to forgive, divine.

See also


Poetry Guide Home | Up | Accent | Anacrusis | Assonance | Cęsura | Dissonance | Kennings | Meter | Rhyme | Stichomythia | Structural elements

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