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In meter, a caesura (alternative spellings are cæsura and cesura) is a grammatical or syntactical break, usually indicated by punctuation, within a line of poetry. The plural form of caesura is caesuras or caesurae.
There are two types of caesurae: masculine and feminine. A masculine caesura is a break that follows a stressed syllable, and a feminine caesura follows an unstressed syllable. Another distinction is by the position of the caesura in a line. An initial caesura describes a break close to the beginning of a line, a medial denotes a pause in the middle and a terminal occurs at the very end. Initial and terminal caesurae were rare in formal, Romance, and Neoclassical verse, which preferred medial caesurae. In scansion, the "double pipe" sign ("||") is used to denote the position of a caesura in a line.
In musical notation, caesura denotes a complete cessation of musical time.
The informal term for caesurae amongst UK musicians is 'tram-lines', due to the physical resemblance of the sign to tram (street-car) lines. The informal term for caesurae among US musicians is 'railroad tracks', due to the physical resemblance of the sign to railroad (railway) tracks.
The "double pipes" ("||") are not original to any of the texts quoted, but only serve to show the position of the audible pause.
- μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ || Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
- ("Sing, o goddess, the rage || of Achilles, the son of Peleus.")
This line includes a masculine caesura after θεὰ, a natural break that separates the line into two logical parts. Unlike later writers, Homeric lines more commonly employ the feminine caesura.
- Arma virumque cano, || Troiae qui primus ab oris
- ("Of arms and the man, I sing. Who first from the shores of Troy. . .")
This line displays an obvious caesura in the medial position. In dactylic hexameter, a caesura occurs any time the ending of a word does not coincide with the beginning or the end of a metrical foot; in modern prosody, however, it is only called one when the ending also coincides with an audible pause in the line. The ancient elegiac couplet form of the Greeks and Romans contained a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of pentameter; the pentameter often displayed an even more obvious caesura:
- Cynthia prima fuit; || Cynthia finis erit.
- ("Cynthia was the first; Cynthia will be the last" — Propertius)
The caesura was even more important to Old English verse than it was to Latin or Greek poetry. In Latin or Greek poetry, the caesura could be suppressed for effect in any line at will. In the alliterative verse that is shared by most of the oldest Germanic languages, the caesura is an ever-present and necessary part of the verse form itself. Consider the opening line of Beowulf:
- "Hwæt! We Gardena " || "in gear-dagum,"
- "þeodcyninga," || "þrym gefrunon,"
- "hu ða æþelingas" || "ellen fremedon."
- ("So! The Spear-Danes in days gone by")
- ("and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.")
- ("We have heard of these princes' heroic campaigns.")
The basic form is accentual verse, with four stresses per line, separated by a caesura. Old English poetry added alliteration and other devices to this basic pattern.
- I loked on my left half || as þe lady me taughte
- And was war of a womman || worþeli ycloþed.
- ("I looked on my left side / as the lady me taught / and was aware of a woman / worthily clothed.")
Caesurae can occur in later forms of verse; in these, though, they are usually optional. The so-called ballad meter, or the common meter of the hymn odists, is usually thought of as a line of iambic tetrameter followed by a line of trimeter, but it can also be considered a line of heptameter with a fixed caesura at the fourth foot, as in these lines from Byron's "Youth and Age":
- As springs in deserts found seem sweet, || All brackish though they be,
- So midst the wither'd waste of life, || These tears would flow to me!
Considering the break as a caesura in these verse forms, rather than a beginning of a new line, explains how sometimes multiple caesurae can be found in this verse form (from the ballad Tom o' Bedlam):
- From the hag and hungry goblin || that into rags would rend ye,
- And the spirits that stand || by the naked man || in the Book of Moons, defend ye!
In later and freer verse forms, the caesura is optional. It can, however, be used for rhetorical effect, as in Alexander Pope's line:
- To err is human; || to forgive, divine.
See also Edit
-  “caesura”, Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, Web, 3 March 2007.
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