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What Is a Caesura and How Does It Function in the Rhythm of a Poem?


Getting the rhythm of a poem just right can be challenging, even for experienced poets. Many rhyming poems use pauses at the end of each line to ensure the rhyme scheme measures up, but not all poems adopt this meter. When a line of poetry has two phrases or sentences, poets sometimes use caesuras to create an emotional effect or as a form of punctuation.

Caesura Definition

A caesura is an abrupt pause in the middle of a line of poetry. Sometimes it serves as a form of punctuation at the end of a phrase or sentence. There are two types of caesurae. A masculine caesura is one that occurs immediately after a stressed syllable while a feminine caesura happens after an unstressed syllable. The caesura is such an important part of poetry that several literary and poetry magazines, such as the University of Delaware's literary magazine, are called "Caesura."

Uses in Poetry

A caesura can create a number of effects depending upon how it's used. Sometimes it simply breaks up a monotonous rhythm and forces the reader to take note of the phrase that precedes the caesura. In other cases, it might be used to create an ominous or dramatic effect. Occasionally, a caesura occurs in the middle of a phrase or sentence of poetry, and in these poems, there are often several caesurae that create their own rhythm.

Effect on Rhythm

A caesura creates a more uneven rhythm than a poem that has no caesura. Masculine caesurae tend to create a more staccato effect in poems, while feminine caesurae are softer and less abrupt. Poets frequently use the symbol "||" to indicate a caesura.

Example of Caesura

Alexander Pope, an 18th century poet who frequently wrote satirical works, used caesurae to add depth to his couplets. For example, in "Eloisa to Abelard," he uses the following set of caesurae: "Alas how changed! || What sudden horrors rise! A naked lover || bound and bleeding lies! Where, where was Eloise? || her voice, her hand, Her poniard, || had opposed the dire command."

About the Author

Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.