Line break (poetry)

Line break (poetry)

A line break in poetry is when a line of the poetry ceases to extend, and a new line starts, usually at the left margin. Not all poetry has all of its lines left-margin justified, however, and there even exists poetry where a new line does not have to be on a different horizontal row than the previous line, but could be separated from that line for example by a slash (this happens mostly in later poetry). Line breaks can be a source of dynamism for the way the form of poetry impletes its ideas with intensities and extra meanings that would not have been possible to the same degree in other forms of text. For example, if a term such as "dog catcher" were to be placed in the poetry such that the line break came between the two words, then the reader might first read the text as though what were being referred to were simply a dog, then see that it is 'actually' a dog catcher. When this 'actual' meaning is grasped, however, the previous meaning is still preserved within the realm of what it is important to understand that the poetry means to suggest; hence, were we reading a narrative poem about the adventures of dogs, the implication could very well be that dog catchers are to dogs as dogs are normally thought to be to people: inferior or roguish. It is also the case, however, that this effect may be produced without the aid of a line break, such as frequently in Shakespeare's sonnets, but a line break certainly intensifies and calls attention to such an effect.

Here are two examples of this technique operating in different ways in Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" (which, however, some Early Modernists would argue wasn't necessarily consciously 'intended' by Shakespeare to be read in a context, i.e. print, in which these effects would have been apparent as a result of line breaks):

*In the first example, the line break between the last two lines "cuts" them apart, emphasizing the cutting off of the head:::::::::"With his own sword,":"Which he did wave against my throat, I have ta'en":"His head from him."

*In the second example, the piece of text before the line break has a meaning all its own; this meaning, a reader may encounter before it is 'revised' by the text after the line break, which clarifies that, instead of "I, as a person, as a mind, am 'absolute,'" it 'really' means: "I am absolutely sure it was Cloten":::::::::"I am absolute":"'Twas very Cloten."Some interpreters would argue that the 'first' meaning is preserved in the realm of the metatext.

Where the lines are broken in relation to the ideas in the poem also affects the feeling of reading the poetry. For example, the feeling may be jagged or startling versus soothing and natural, which can be used to reinforce or contrast the ideas in the poem. Lines are often broken between words, but there is certainly a great deal of poetry where at least some of the lines are broken in the middles of words: this can be a device for achieving inventive rhyme schemes.

In general, line breaks divide the poetry into smaller units called lines, which are often interpreted in terms of their self-contained meanings and aesthetic values: hence the term "good line". Line breaks, indentations, and the lengths of individual words determine the visual shape of the poetry on the page, which is a common and important site of aesthetic investment. In metered poetry, the places where the lines are broken are determined by the decision to have the lines composed of specific numbers of syllables. Prose poetry is poetry without line breaks. Enjambment is when the line break comes in the middle of a sentence. Alternation between enjambment and end-stopped lines is characteristic of some complex and well composed poetry, such as in Milton's "Paradise Lost".

A new line can begin with a lowercase or capital letter. New lines beginning with lowercase letters vaguely corresponds with the shift from earlier to later poetry: for example, the poet John Ashbery usually begins his lines with capital letters prior to his 1991 book-length poem Flow-Chart, whereas in and after Flow-Chart he almost invariably begins lines with lowercase letters unless the beginning of the line is also the beginning of a new sentence. There is, however, some much earlier poetry where new lines begin with lowercase letters. Beginning a line with an uppercase letter when the beginning of the line does "not" coincide with the beginning of a new sentence is called "majusculation".


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