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Understanding Caesura: Definition and Examples of Caesura

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 14, 2020 • 2 min read

If you’re new to studying English poetry and English literature, there are many literary devices to acquaint yourself with. The pantheon of English verse contains poems of all different rhyme schemes and meters. One poetic device that has been featured in both classical and modern poetry is the caesura.



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What Is a Caesura?

In Latin and Greek classical poetry, a caesura (plural caesurae) is the space between two words contained within a metrical foot. In modern poetry, the definition of “caesura” is the natural end to a poetic phrase, especially when the phrase ends in the middle of a line of poetry. There are two types of caesura: A masculine caesura follows a stressed or accented syllable while a feminine caesura follows an unstressed syllable.

Another way to classify a caesura is based on where it occurs within a poetic line: An initial caesura occurs towards the beginning of a line, a medial caesura occurs in the middle of a line of poetry, and a terminal caesura is used near the end of a line of poetry.

Medial caesurae occurring in the middle of aline are more common in classical poetry than those occurring toward the beginning or end of the line. The scansion mark used to indicate a caesura is two parallel vertical bars: “||”. This is a variation of the virgule, which is a slash denoting a line break.

6 Examples of Caesura in Poetry

Caesurae are common throughout the history of poetry. In classical poetry, a caesura occurs whenever the ending of a word occurs in the middle of a metrical foot. In modern poetry, the term only applies when an audible pause occurs in the line of verse. In Old English poetry, the caesura is used to emphasize an articulated pause that occurs in the middle of lines that would otherwise be monotonous and droning. Here are some examples of caesurae in poetry:

1. The Aeneid by Virgil
Arma virumque cano || Troiae qui primus ab oris
(Of arms and the man, I sing. || Who first from the shores of Troy...)

2. “An Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope
To err is human; || to forgive, divine.

3. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
It is for you we speak, || not for ourselves:
You are abused || and by some putter-on
That will be damn’d for’t; || would I knew the villain,
I would land-damn him. || Be she honour-flaw’d,
I have three daughters; || the eldest is eleven

4. The Iliad by Homer
Sing, o goddess || the rage of Achilles, the son of Peleus.

5. “Ozymandias”: by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Who said—”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … || Near them, || on the sand …
My name is Ozymandias, || King of Kings; ||
Look on my Works, || ye Mighty, || and despair!
Nothing beside remains. || Round the decay …

6. “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” by Emily Dickinson
I’m nobody! || Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us || – don’t tell!
They’d banish || – you know!

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