Caesura in Poetry: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 What Is a Caesura?
  • 1:02 Examples
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Vineski

Patricia has an MFA in Writing, an MS in Teaching and English Language Arts, and a BA in English.

In this lesson, you'll learn what a caesura is in poetry and how it functions within the poetic line to add a more natural rhythm to a poem. Take a look at some examples, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is a Caesura?

We all speak. We all breathe. We all take breaths when we speak. When we say, 'Julie made the finals in track,' we take a breath before saying, 'But Brian didn't,' and then another breath before saying, 'He fell and sprained his ankle.' Besides allowing us to speak without suffocating, these pauses form the natural rhythms of our speech. Just as there are pauses in our speech, there are pauses in the lines that make up a poem. These pauses have a name.

A caesura is a pause in a line of poetry that is formed by the rhythms of natural speech rather than by metrics. A caesura will usually occur near the middle of a poetic line but can also occur at the beginning or the end of a line. In poetry, there are two types of caesural breaks: feminine and masculine. A caesura is usually indicated by the symbol // but can be indicated by a single crossed line.


A caesura will usually occur in the middle of a line of poetry. This caesura is called a medial caesura. For example, in the children's verse, 'Sing a Song of Sixpence,' the caesura occurs in the middle of each line:

'Sing a song of sixpence, // a pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds, // baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened, // the birds began to sing;

Wasn't that a dainty dish, // to set before the king?'

These medial caesurae indicate where most native speakers of English would naturally pause, and in this case, occur at the same point as the commas, which serve to emphasize that natural pause. (Note: you just heard me use the plural for caesura: caesurae.)

Sometimes a caesura will occur at the beginning of a line, called an initial caesura, or at the end of a line, called a terminal caesura. For example, in the first line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Mother and Poet', the caesura occurs after the very first word of the poem: 'Dead ! // One of them shot by the sea in the east'

This initial caesura emphasizes that first word, 'Dead!', and reflects the grief and heartache of a mother at the loss of one of her sons. Then, in the fourth line of the 12th stanza, the caesura occurs just before the last word of the line: 'No voice says 'My mother' again to me. // What!'

This terminal caesura emphasizes that last word, 'What!', and reflects the need to understand why that accompanies grief; in this case, a mother's need to understand why her sons are dead, yet she still lives.

The feminine caesura is a pause that occurs after a non-stressed syllable in a line. For example, in the following passage from Shakespeare's 'Winter's Tale,' each caesura occurs after a non-stressed syllable:

'It is for you we speak, // not for ourselves:

You are abused // and by some putter-on

That will be damn'd for't; // would I knew the villain,

I would land-damn him. // Be she honour-flaw'd,

I have three daughters; // the eldest is eleven

The second and the third, // nine, // and some five;

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