As defined by Oregon State University:

Enjambment, from the French meaning “a striding over,” is a poetic term for the continuation of a sentence or phrase from one line of poetry to the next. 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.

Enjambment is a poetic technique that occurs when a sentence or phrase runs over multiple lines of a poem, without a pause or break in thought. 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.

By carrying sentences and phrases 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.

In this article, we explore the functions and significance of enjambment in poetry, its various purposes, and the impact it has on the overall poetic experience.

Functions and Purposes of Enjambment

Functionally, enjambment serves several purposes in poetry:

  1. Fluidity and movement: Enjambment keeps the momentum of the poem flowing smoothly. By carrying the thought beyond line breaks, it allows the reader to move seamlessly from one line to the next, creating a sense of natural progression.
  2. Emphasis and surprise: Enjambment can highlight certain words or phrases by placing them at the end of a line. This can create emphasis or surprise because it presents a challenge to readers’ expectations, as they may anticipate the sentence to end but is instead led into the next line.
  3. Ambiguity and multiple meanings: Enjambment can introduce ambiguity and multiple interpretations. By breaking the syntactical structure across lines, it encourages readers to pause and ponder the possible meanings or connections between lines, thereby enriching the poetic experience and engaging the reader’s imagination.
  4. Heightened emotion and tension: When used effectively, enjambment can build emotional tension by stretching out a thought or idea, leaving readers hanging for resolution until they continue reading onto the next line.
  5. Visual impact: Enjambment can also have a visual impact on the poem’s layout. It may lead to irregular line lengths and varied stanza structures, adding to the poem’s overall visual appeal, which adds another dimension to the reader’s engagement with the poem.

In terms of uses, enjambment is a flexible tool that poets can employ to evoke specific responses from their readers. It can be utilized in various poetic forms 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.

4 Examples of Enjambment in Poetry

Enjambment is a versatile poetic technique that can be found in various poems across different styles and periods. Here are a few examples of enjambment in poetry:

  • Example 1: William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
"...Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts..."

In this excerpt, you can see how the poet carries the sentences over multiple lines, maintaining a smooth flow and creating a sense of continuity. The enjambment adds to the meditative and reflective tone of the poem.

  • Example 2: Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers”
"Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm."

Here, Dickinson uses enjambment to extend the thoughts beyond the natural line breaks, contributing to the song-like quality of the poem. The enjambment also emphasizes the resilience of hope in difficult times.

  • Example 3: T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
"And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,"

Eliot employs enjambment to build tension and anticipation in this famous modernist poem. The enjambment contributes to the fragmented and introspective nature of the speaker’s thoughts.

  • Example 4: Langston Hughes’s “Harlem”
"What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?"

In this poem, Hughes uses enjambment to pose a series of questions about deferred dreams. The enjambment creates a sense of continuous inquiry and emphasizes the various possibilities and consequences.

These examples illustrate how enjambment can be employed by poets to enhance the rhythm, meaning, and emotional impact of their verses.

Enjambment is a valuable tool in a poet’s toolbox, allowing them to manipulate the flow of ideas, emotions, and meanings within a poem while enhancing the poetic experience, inviting readers to engage more deeply with the language and the poet’s intentions.

It’s a powerful tool that adds depth and complexity to poetry, making it a cherished technique in the world of literature. When used skillfully, enjambment can elevate the beauty and complexity of a poem, leaving a lasting impression on its audience.

Further Reading

Dear Bad Writers, Read This Poetic Line Breaks Guide by Hannah Huff, Notes of Oak

Pacing a Poem by Gerry LaFemina, Coal Hill Review

A Lesson in the Poetic Line by Melissa Smith, Teach Living Poets

Poetic Terms: End-stops and Enjambment by Robert Lee Brewer, Writer’ Digest

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