On Enjambment and Other Horrors

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

My students are having horrible troubles with the notion of enjambment. Well, not really, but they think they are. It’s important for students of writing to understand the techniques of any given form not so much for the use of those techniques but to understand how meaning is made possible and how language can be shaped. Most technique is transparent. In film, editing techniques are often meant not to be noticed.

Here’s a section of Anna Barbauld’s The Epiphany

Deep in Sabea’s fragrant groves retired,
Long had the Eastern Sages studious dwelt,
By love sublime of sacred science fired:
Long had they trained the’ inquiring youth,
With liberal hand the bread of wisdom dealt,
And sung in solemn verse mysterious truth.

That first line is significant. It provides us language about place, which is a typical routine of the phrase. It provides context. But I doubt the poet is offering that first line as a complete unit of meaning, hence we can say the line is part of an enjambed unit. The punctuation doesn’t matter. The reader is meant to follow the next several lines to the noun and verb: sages and dwelt. Of course, it’s important that the sages have had a lot of time invested in Sabea’s groves. They’ve been in there a long time, which is suggested by the words “deep” and “retired” in line 1.

Enjambment as a poetic technique can be interpreted in many ways because of the way poetic lines can be conceived. If cummings could write “i thank You God for most this amazing / day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees” we have to be able to infer that he worried about the meaning of the line break and avoided placing the word “day” beside “amazing.” The metrical unit doesn’t need to matter, nor does the foot pattern, as in disyllabic (iamb) or trisyllabic (anapest). But it can matter, also, depending on the sense of lines, as in Barbauld’s poem above. In the cummings example, the speaker says “i thank you God . . . ” This, of course, is a clause, but it isn’t the unit of meaning of significance in the sense of a poetic line, though it might be fine as a church utterance. If the significant unit of meaning crosses lines, then we have enjambed examples.

In the history of poetry, the identification of the technique, calling it by name as a technique, might not really matter but then again it might, as techniques need abstraction. It depends on language, too. One of the things I don’t talk about in English Literature course are things like the greek ictus, which is the first beat or first syllable of a metrical foot. In the classic dactylic hexameter, which can be difficult to understand, because metrical types can be interchanged ( a spondee for a trochee–I think I’m recalling that right), the ictus is incredibly important. I would also suggest that the phenomenon is important to cummings and other poets who care about entering lines with something sharp and progressive (which I’m finding significant in music, but in the way of lines) but also as a means of distinguishing lines and making images with them.

When Frost writes in Mending Wall “The work of hunters is another thing:” he’s using critical method to control what the reader does with the lines that came before.

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