What is enjambment? Or, if you prefer, what is ‘enjambement’, or, if you prefer another, what is a ‘run-on line’? These three terms – enjambment, enjambement, and run-on lines – are all used to refer to the same thing, which is when a poet carries over a sentence from one line of verse to the next, rather than pausing at the end of the verse line. The best way to understand enjambment and why it is useful for poetry is to examine a few examples, so that’s what this introduction to the term will do. But before we go any further, here’s a question for you that’s fraught with peril, which the great critic Sir Christopher Ricks likes to ask: what’s the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land? We’ll return to this question at the end of this article.
The English term enjambment is the Anglicised form of the French enjambement (in typical English fashion, we took the second ‘e’ out when borrowing the word from the French). And enjambement, in French, means literally ‘in-striding’, from the French jambe meaning ‘leg’. This is because, in enjambement (or enjambment), the poet’s words straddle or bestride two lines of verse, like this:
Hello, this line of verse is going
To carry on without your knowing.
Okay, that’s a terrible couplet, but you get the gist: we reach the end of the first line and the meaning, the syntax, the sentence, is incomplete. This line of verse is going to do what? The next line, in my example (or meta-example) completes the sentence and tells us what the line of verse is going to do: to carry on (without our knowing – okay, that part is there purely to provide a rhyme and make the thing look like verse). Or, instead of ‘carry on’, we could say that that first line of verse is going to run on into the next line. This is why another way of describing enjambment is to talk about run-on lines.
The opposite to run-on lines, or enjambment, is lines which don’t run on, but instead have a pause or stop at the end of the line:
Hello, you approach the end of the line:
Now please stop reading and you’ll do just fine.
The examples don’t get any better lyrically or metrically, but again, this one neatly captures what the opposite to a run-on line looks like: you reach the end of the first line and there’s a pause, neatly marked for us by the use of the colon. That first line provides a little self-contained phrase, whereas in the previous example (‘Hello, this line of verse is going’) we were left hanging at the end of the line, wondering what was coming next. No pause, no punctuation, no stopping. But ‘end of the line:’ tells us to stop, so we can talk about the line being end-stopped. End-stopped lines have stops at the end, as the name implies, and are therefore the opposite of run-on lines, which carry on into the next line rather than stopping.
By contrast, this, from William Wordsworth, immediately strikes us as more ‘natural’ and closer to ordinary speech, because it uses enjambment:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love …
These lines, from Wordsworth’s 1798 poem ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798’, commonly known as ‘Tintern Abbey’ to save about five minutes, show that blank verse is especially useful for more meditative, contemplative poems. Note also the frequent use of enjambment or run-on lines: this is when the end of the line is not marked by punctuation, but the sentence or clause carries on over into the next line, as in
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love
Where ‘acts / Of kindness’ sees the end of the line mark a pause, mid-flow. We have to keep reading to see what the ‘acts’ were about (kindness and love).
Similarly, another Romantic poet, John Keats, made great use of enjambment in the opening lines of his poem Endymion:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
This is the go-to example for many introductions to enjambment, partly, one suspects, because it begins with an end-stopped line (marked by that colon) before giving way, at the end of the second line, to enjambment or run-on lines. By observing Keats’s control of syntax, we can see why enjambment can be so useful to poets: he opens his poem with a bold, declarative statement, and then pauses for effect. But in the second line, ‘it will never / Pass into nothingness’ neatly enacts the eternal joy that a beautiful thing provides: rather than coming to an end when the line ends, the movement of ‘never / Pass’ over one line into the next enacts the infinite joy beauty gives us, by suggesting that it has no end.
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines enjambment as a feature specifically associated with rhyming couplets, where the end of the couplet isn’t end-stopped but carries on into the following line. But this won’t do: any line of verse can be a run-on line, and it doesn’t matter whether the enjambment comes at the end of a couplet or the end of a line of blank verse, free verse, or some other verse form. But historically, the term was restricted to couplets, as the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear in its definition, which acknowledges the shift in meaning and application of the term: ‘The continuation of a sentence beyond the second line of a couplet. Now also applied less restrictedly to the carrying over of a sentence from one line to the next.’ We can see why the meaning shifted: whilst it’s true that Keats’s opening couplet (ever/never) does follow the old rule about enjambment, the third line (ending with ‘keep’) is not at the end of a couplet, but is still a run-on line.
And so, to return to Sir Christopher Ricks’s booby-trapped question from the beginning of this short introduction to enjambment: the opening line of The Waste Land is not ‘April is the cruellest month’, but ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’. Then, that ‘breeding’ carries us over into the second line: ‘Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing’, which in turn carries us over into the third: ‘Memory and desire, stirring’, and so on. Here, the swirling energies of Eliot’s lines – made possible by his repeated use of enjambment – suggest the worrying new life that is being brought into being with the arrival of spring. There is something about the incessant use of run-on lines turning on the present participle -ing words which unnerves us. Rearranging Eliot’s lines as, for instance:
April is the cruellest month,
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land,
Mixing memory and desire …
Would create a very different effect.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.