Writing

Poetry 101: What Is Enjambment in Poetry?

Written by MasterClass

Apr 17, 2019 • 4 min read

Poetry is a structured literary form, with patterns and rhythms that dictate the flow of verses. Lineation in poetry is how lines are divided and where they end in relation to a clause or thought. Having a line break at the end of a phrase or complete thought is a regular and expected pattern in poetry. Poets subvert this expectation by using a technique called enjambment. Enjambment breaks with our expectations of where a line should end, creating a different feel to a poem.

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What Is Enjambment in Poetry?

Simply put, enjambment is when the end of a phrase extends past the end of a line. The definition of “enjambment” in French is “to step over.” In poetry, this means that a thought “steps over” the end of a line and into the beginning of the next line, with no punctuation, so that the reader must read through the line break quickly to reach the conclusion of the thought.

The use of enjambment often creates a free-flowing poem that puts an emphasis on unexpected beats. Here is an example of enjambment in “It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free” (1802) by William Wordsworth, where a semicolon is placed in the middle of a line instead of the end:

The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;

Why Is Enjambment Used in Poetry?

By allowing a thought to overflow across lines, enjambment creates fluidity and brings a prose-like quality to poetry,

Poets use literary devices like enjambment to:

  • Add complexity. Enjambment builds a more complex narrative within a poem by fleshing out a thought instead of confining it to one line.
  • Create tension. Enjambment builds the drama in a poem. The end of the first line isn’t the end of a thought but rather a cliffhanger, forcing the reader to keep moving forward to find out what happens next. It delivers a resolution in the second line, or the third line, depending on the length of enjambment.
  • Build momentum. Enjambment moves seamlessly through line breaks where there is usually a forced pause in poetry. The brain wants to move quickly on to read the conclusion of the sentence, creating a faster pace and a momentum. It gives a poem a flow and energy.
  • Create an element of surprise. In some instances, enjambment is used as a plot twist technique, shifting to a conflicting idea from one line to the next, creating an element of surprise.
  • Play with syntax. Words in an enjambed poetic line are deliberately placed. A word used at the end of the line—where a pause occurs but the thought continues—is meant to be emphasized.
  • Complement performance. Enjambment was often used in the poetic dialogue in Shakespeare’s plays. The technique allows a character to flow with a thought instead of clunky, end-stopped lines that can disrupt the momentum of the performance.

Examples of Enjambment in Poetry

Here are examples that show how different poets have used enjambment. Read them aloud to hear the rhythm and where the poets place the emphasis in each line.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

In his 434-line narrative poem The Waste Land, T.S. Elliot uses enjambment to evoke the momentum of the changing seasons. Eliot places commas in the middle of the lines to builds tension as the earth churns, ending most lines with verbs to describe and emphasize the metamorphosis taking place.

John Keats, Endymion (1818)

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Enjambed lines can take full advantage of rhyme schemes as seen in Keats’s Endymion. This technique of mixing enjambment with rhyme gives the illusion that there is closure after every second line, and mimics an open couplet — a two-line stanza that contains a single thought — but the enjambment pushes through and carries on.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1609)

To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is written for the stage. Enjambment is a literary device used to instruct the delivery of lines projected to an audience. In this soliloquy, as Hamlet prepares to avenge his father’s murder, the rhythm of enjambment mirrors his pensive train of thought as he processes and reflects on the meaning of life.

Learn more about literary devices in poetry from acclaimed poet and former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.