Everyone has to breathe. Therefore, you can’t say a line of poetry endlessly. You need breaks. A caesura is perfect because it gives you natural breaks in poetry. And poets, like Shakespeare, have used this throughout history. See it in action through these caesura examples.
What Is a Caesura?
Looking for a caesura in poetry? Look no further than “To be, or not to be - that is the question.” There you go, you’ve found your first caesura example. It’s far from the only caesura example, but it’s a great one by Shakespeare himself. So what is a caesura, you might be wondering?
In the simplest terms, a caesura is a natural end in a poetic phrase or break in the rhyme. Let’s look at Shakespeare’s line again.
To be, or not to be - that is the question.
The example has two caesurae; the clearest one comes after be and before that. It’s a dramatic pause in the meter of the writing. However, the less noticeable one is set off by the comma after “To be.”
Marking a Caesura
Have you ever seen something marked with a weird double-pipe like (||)? If so, then it’s the scansion mark for a caesura in action. The double-pipe is used to mark a caesura like this example from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale:
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,
As you can see, Shakespeare loved to include a good caesura. And, sometimes, he added more than one in a line like in Hamlet.
Types of Caesura
Like with most poetry terms, caesura come in different types.
- Masculine caesura - after a stressed syllable
- Feminine caesura - after an unstressed syllable
- Initial caesura - toward the beginning
- Medial caesura - near the middle
- Terminal caesura - at or near the end
In the Hamlet example, “To be, || or not to be || - that is the question.” The first caesura is an initial caesura, and the second caesura is a medial caesura. However, now you can look at a few examples of the other types too.
Masculine Caesura Examples
Masculine caesurae are pretty easy to find. But here are a few greats for you to see how this pause works.
Mother and Poet by Elizabeth Barrett
What art can a woman be good at? || Oh, vain!
What art is she good at, || but hurting her breast
With the milk-teeth of babes, || and a smile at the pain?
Ah boys, how you hurt! || you were strong as you pressed,
And I proud, || by that test.
In her poem, you can see the pauses happening after the stressed syllables. For example, “Ah boys, how you hurt! || you were strong as you pressed,”. In the phrase, “hurt” is stressed, making it a perfect masculine caesura example.
Tom O’Bedlam by Anonymous
When I short have shorn my sow's face
And swigged my horny barrel,
At an oaken inn || I impound my skin
In a suit of gilt apparel.
The pause happens after the stressed “inn.” While it doesn’t have as many masculine caesurae as the Barrett poem, Tom O’Bedlam is still a tremendous masculine caesura example.
Feminine Caesura Examples
You’ve seen the masculine caesurae at play; now it’s time to see how a feminine caesura works. Explore these fun feminine caesura examples in poetry.
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
In this passage, Shakespeare is demonstrating his perfect use of the feminine caesura. For example, in the first line, the emphasis is on you. “It is for you we speak, not for ourselves.” Additionally, you can see the stressed daugh in the line, “I have three daughters.” The ters is not stressed.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping || with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Yeats offers another example of a feminine caesura in his poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. The ‘ing’ is unstressed and shows the soft, less abrupt feminine caesura.
Initial, Medial, and Terminal Caesura Examples
It’s easy to find an example of medial caesura. Most of the masculine and feminine caesurae were also medial because they came in the middle of the passage. However, cases of initial and terminal caesura can be a little trickier to find. Explore these examples of initial, medial, and terminal caesura.
Eloisa to Abelard By Alexander Pope
Death, || only death, can break the lasting chain;
In the poem “Eloisa to Abelard”, you can see the precise use of the initial caesura after the word “death.” It occurs right at the beginning of the line and works to add emphasis to that word.
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!
Medial caesuras are a dime a dozen. You can find them all over in poetry. But Emily Dickinson provides an excellent example in her poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”. You can see the medial caesura coming after “I’m nobody.” However, Dickinson also offers an excellent terminal caesura in the third stanza “Then there’s a pair of us -- don’t tell.”
The Use of Caesura
When you speak, you take natural pauses in your breath. Poets use this natural pause to add to the rhythm and impact of their poetry through a caesura. Don’t let your love of poetry end here. Find out more about poetry terms through 20 essential poetry terms to know.