An Introduction to Enjambment

Enjambment, also known as run-on line (derives from French, literally means “stradding” or “to stride over,”) is a poetic term for the continuation of a sentence or phrase from one line of poetry to the next. The term Enjambment is aptly named because the phrases and sentences in enjambment straddle the ends of lines.

An enjambed line typically lacks punctuation at its line break, so the reader is carried smoothly and swiftly—without interruption—to the next line of the poem. In other words, the thought or sentence spills over from one line to the next, disregarding the natural line breaks, punctuation, or syntactical boundaries. Instead, the thought is carried forward, creating a sense of continuity and fluidity.

Notable Examples of Enjambment

Enjambment occurs when a line which could be grammatically complete is nonetheless continued in the next line. As in:

Armed in bronze, but the bossed shields
Were pressing against each other, and a great din arose.
And then there was wailing and shouting of men
Killing and being killed, and the earth ran with blood.”

— Higbie, 1990:41

These lines from William Shakespeare'sOpens in new window The Winter's TaleOpens in new window (c. 1611) are heavily enjambed:

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown.

Enjambment typically allows ideas to continue beyond the limitations of a single line. By carrying sentencesOpens in new window and phrasesOpens in new window over multiple lines without any pause or break, this technique creates a sense of continuous movement, allowing readers to seamlessly progress through the verses.

The art of enjambment employs the continuity of thought beyond the natural structure of a poem. Because it disregards conventional boundaries, this poetic technique presents a unique challenge to readers who must follow the poet’s intended flow without the usual markers.

Enjambment is is often confused with end-stoppingOpens in new window, in which a line contains one complete phrase or sentence. The term is also confused with caesuraOpens in new window, which is when the complete thought is ended mid-line. However, in enjambment, every phrase and sentence is carefully broken down within the lines with precision and intent. In this vein we look at intentions (purposes) behind the uses of enjambment by poets.

Applicable Uses of Enjambment

Poet use enjambment for several purposes. When a poem repeatedly completes a phrase or sentence within a single line, the poem can becomes stagnant, because the lines typically become long and are the same length. Enjambment, on the other hand, makes the poem varied and pleasing to the eye and the ear. This poetic device disrupts the senses by breaking thoughts where the brain expects to continue.

It creates a different sense of expectation and forces pauses within poems by creating tension. It forces the reader to pause and creates changes in tone when spoken, making the poem sound more natural or rhythmic to the ear. Enjambment, therefore, is a flexible tool that poets can employ to evoke specific responses from their readers. It can be utilized in various poetic forms (see below) and genres to create different effects.

1.   Narrative poetry

In narrative poems, enjambment helps maintain the story’s pace and encourages readers to follow the plot fluidly. Readers can seamlessly follow the story’s developments as enjambment keeps them immersed in the poetic journey.

2.   Sonnets

Enjambment can add depth and complexity to the concise form of a sonnet, allowing poets to express complex emotions or thoughts within the limited structure. This technique breathes life into the carefully crafted fourteen-line poems.

3.   Free verse poetry

Enjambment is particularly common in free verse poetry, as it provides poets with the freedom to experiment with line breaks and create distinct rhythmic patterns. This freedom enhances the poet’s ability to convey emotions and ideas in a unique manner.

4.   Emotional expression

Poets often use enjambment to convey strong emotions, such as love, anger, or despair, by extending their thoughts across multiple lines, thus intensifying the emotional impact, thereby forging a deep connection with their audience.

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  • References
    • Bookish Bay, Definition and Examples of EnjambmentOpens in new window.
    • Hollander, J. (1989) Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, new ed., London: Yale University Press.
    • Dickinson, Emily (1951): The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Boston, London: Little, Brown.
    • Elizabeth Whittome: Cambridge International AS and A Level Literature in English Coursebook

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