What Is Enjambment? Definition and Examples

How Poets Break Lines, and Why

Hercules straddles a river and holds two blue mountains.
"Enjambment" describes a sentence or clause that straddles lines of poetry.

"The Columns of Hercules" by French artist Leslie Xuereb via Getty Images

 

In poetry, enjambment describes a clause or a sentence that continues from one line to the next without a pause and without punctuation.

The term enjambment originates from the French words jambe, meaning leg, and enjamber, meaning to straddle or step over. By using enjambment, the poet can compose a sentence that runs on for several lines or even straddles the entire poem before reaching a full stop.

Did You Know?

In poetry, enjambment creates anticipation and invites readers to move to the next line. It can also be used to emphasize key words or suggest double meanings.

Line Breaks in Poetry

The line — its length and where it breaks — is the most noticeable feature of poetry. Without line breaks, a poem may resemble prose with text running all the way to the margin. By breaking thoughts into lines, poets can convey ideas and feelings that might be difficult to express in ordinary sentences.

Lineation — the process of dividing text into poetic lines — is a skilled art. A poet may try many arrangements before choosing where to end a line. The possibilities can seem endless. A prose poem doesn't have line breaks at all. Most poems, however, have some combination of these lineation patterns:

  1. End-stopped lines conclude with a strong form of punctuation like a period or a colon.
  2. Parsed lines break where a speaker would naturally pause or take a breath, such as between independent clauses.
  3. Enjambed lines break the syntax of the sentence: Phrases stop in mid-thought, only to spill over into the line below. Since the line has no end punctuation, the reader is propelled forward through the poem.

Each of these approaches creates a different rhythm and tone. Enjambment tends to quicken the pace. The interruptions arouse uncertainty and suspense, encouraging readers to move to the next line. End-stopped and parsed lines suggest authority. Full stops at the end of each line prompt readers to proceed slowly, contemplating each statement.

Enjambment Examples and Analysis

Enjambment Example 1: Broken sentences in "The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel" by Gwendolyn Brooks.

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We ...

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) became known for writing spare poems about race and social justice. Through deceptively simple language, "The Pool Players" gives voice to lost and hopeless youth. The complete poem is only eight lines long, and every line except the last is enjambed.

The broken sentences suggest restless rebellion and also place extra emphasis on the pronoun "We." There's an uneasy pause and an air of nervous anticipation: "We" what? Readers are prompted to read on to complete the statement.

Enjambment is an especially powerful tool in "The Pool Players" because the poem is, after all, about broken lives. The fractured statements build to a shocking end stop: "We / Die soon."

Enjambment Example 2: Double meanings in "Vernal Equinox” by Amy Lowell.

The scent of hyacinths, like a pale mist, lies
between me and my book;
And the South Wind, washing through the room,
Makes the candles quiver.
My nerves sting at a spatter of rain on the shutter,
And I am uneasy with the thrusting of green shoots
Outside, in the night.
Why are you not here to overpower me with your
tense and urgent love?

Amy Lowell (1874-1925) was an imagest who wanted to describe powerful emotions through precise sensory details and the rhythms of ordinary language. Her poem "Vernal Equinox" is rich with evocative images: the scent of hyacinths, spattering rain, stinging nerves. The line lengths are irregular, suggesting natural speech. Also, like most poets, Lowell used a variety of lineation patterns. Three of the lines are enjambed while the others are end-stopped or parsed.

In the first line, enjambment creates a double meaning. The word "lies" conjures the idea that the scent of the hyacinths is deceptive. The next line, however, reveals that the word "lies" refers to the location of the scent: between the speaker and her book.

The next enjambment appears in line six. Once again, an unexpected break creates momentary confusion. Is "shoots" a noun or a verb? Does the "thrusting of green" actually shoot at someone? To understand what's happening, it's necessary to read the next line.

The third enjambment occurs near the end of the poem. Suspense builds in the line, "Why are you not here to overpower me with your." Your what? Since the poem has been describing hyacinths, the reader might expect the pronouns "you" and "your" to reference the flowers. The next line, however, introduces a sudden shift in meaning. The speaker is not addressing the flowers. "Your" references the love of someone the speaker longs for.

Enjambment Example 3: Ambiguity and surprise in "By the road to the contagious hospital" by William Carlos Williams.

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water ...

Like Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was an imagist who wanted to create visual snapshots of ordinary life. "By the road to the contagious hospital" is from his collection, Spring and All, which combines prose sketches with fragmented poetry.

The poem opens with images of a somber and perplexing landscape. The word "blue" in the second line is ambiguous. At first it seems to refer to the "contagious" hospital, but as the enjambed sentence continues, it's evident that the mottled clouds (which astonishingly "surge") are blue. 

The hospital is also ambiguous. Is the building contagious? Or does the word "contagious" describe the type of patient the hospital treats? What stands beyond the muddy fields — the dried weeds or the patches of water?

Enjambed phrases hint at one meaning, only to reveal a different meaning in the line below. As meanings shift, the reader becomes part of the transition, discovering new interpretations along the way. "By the road to the contagious hospital" is a journey — through the countryside, through changing seasons, and through altered perceptions.

William Carlos Williams believed that poets could elevate ordinary life by writing colloquial speech into poetic lines. Enjambment allowed him to focus on small details and reveal beauty or pathos in ordinary objects. His famous poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a single 16-word sentence broken into eight short lines. Another short poem, "This Is Just to Say," was allegedly composed as routine note to his wife: Williams broke the 28-word sentence into 12 unpunctuated lines. 

Enjambment Example 4: Metered lines from Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare.

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 honorable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown….

Enjambment isn't a modern idea, and is not confined to the world of free verse. Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a master enjamber, using the device in some of his sonnets and throughout his plays.

These lines from Winter's Tale are blank verse. The meter is a steady and predictable iambic pentameter. If each line came to a full stop, the rhythm might become monotonous. But the lines run counter to the expected syntax. Enjambment energizes the dialog.

For modern-day readers, this passage also invites a feminist interpretation, since the enjambment draws attention to the word "sex."

Enjambment Example 5: Mid-word enjambment in "The Windhover" by Gerald Manley Hopkins.

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing...

Gerald Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was a Jesuit priest who wrote romantic poems seeped with religious symbolism. Although he worked in traditional rhyming forms, he was also an innovator who introduced techniques that seemed radical during his time.

"The Windover" is a lyrical Petrarchan sonnet with a fixed rhyme scheme: ABBA ABBA CDCDCD. With a keen ear for sound, Hopkins chose rhythmic, musical language to describe a windhover, which is a type of small falcon. In the opening line, "kingdom" is oddly hyphenated. By dividing the word into two syllables, Hopkins was able to preserve the sonnet's rhyme scheme. "King" in the first line rhymes with "wing" in the fourth line.

In addition to creating a rhyme, the mid-word enjambment accentuates the syllable "king," highlights the majesty of the falcon, and hints at religious symbolism.

Enjambment Exercise

To practice enjambment and other forms of poetic lineation, try this quick exercise. Copy the sentence below and divide it into several lines. Experiment with different line lengths. Where would you like to add an authoritative stop? Where would you like to break mid-thought?

for some it is stone bare smooth as a buttock rounding into the crevasse of the world the garden of delight

The words are from the first stanza of "the garden of delight" by Lucille Clifton. Read her version of the poem. Did you make similar choices in your own work? How do the different lineation patterns affect the mood of the poem?

Sources

  • Dobyns, Stephen. “Line Breaks” in Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry. St. Martin's Press. 26 Apr 2011. pp 89-110.
  • Frontier Poetry. James Logenbach and the Art of the Poetic Line. Retrieved at https://www.frontierpoetry.com/2018/04/19/poetry-terms-the-three-lines/
  • Hazelton, Rebecca. Learning the Poetic Line. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/70144/learning-the-poetic-line
  • Longenbach, James. Line and Syntax (Excerpt from The Art of the Poetic Line). Poetry Daily. Retrieved at http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_longenbach2.php