Guidelines and exercises for analysing line length and line endings in poetry

In any given poem, the practice of distributing words and phrases across lines whose length is not determined by the size of the page on which they are printed is likely to serve at least one – and frequently more – of the following three purposes:

  1. to emphasise the rhythms, rhymes and other patterns that give certain kinds of poems their shape and character
  2. to encourage us to pay much greater attention than usual to individual words and phrases and thus to make us all the more aware of varieties and nuances of meaning
  3. to regulate the speed and rhythm at which we carry out our reading of a poem and thus help establish the frame of mind in which we interpret the individual words and phrases of that poem

A good place to begin when analysing the contribution a poem’s regulation of its lines makes to its overall meaning and effect is therefore to consider which of these three outcomes is in play. This will necessarily include a consideration of how these outcomes are achieved and why the particular manner in which they are generated and enacted is important for our understanding of the poem as a whole.

With this in mind, it is often helpful to be aware of the different effects that can be produced depending on whether a line ends with a rhyme or not, and whether it is end-stopped or enjambed.

An end-stopped line is one in which the end of a line of poetry also marks the end of a sentence, phrase or clause. This correspondence is often (though not always) indicated by the presence of a punctuation mark at the end of the line – whether that be a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark – or by a less conclusive period marker such as a comma, a semicolon or a colon. Because we feel a satisfying sense of closure when the end of a line corresponds with the end of a sentence, phrase or clause, the effect these end-stopped lines convey is often one of assurance and confidence, of things largely being in the right place in the world.

Consider in this regard the opening lines of Robert Frost’s well-known poem ‘Mending Wall’:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

By setting out his statements in this orderly manner, and above all ensuring they fit neatly inside the boundaries imposed by each line’s beginning and end, the speaker of this poem expresses his prevailing (though not unambiguous) respect for the institution of maintaining a wall between his own property and that of his neighbour which is the focus of the poem. At the same time, the statements these lines contain somewhat paradoxically identify the forces that work to overturn and undermine all such boundaries of this kind. As a result, a tension is immediately introduced into the poem between order and chaos, stasis and movement; it is a tension, moreover, that will prove to be central to the scenario the poem proceeds to explore. Generated as this tension is by the friction between the form of these lines on the one hand and their content on the other, this example offers a good illustration of how even when end-stopped lines such as these might appear to impose a slower pace on the poem, this need not correspond with a loss of energy or dynamism; rather, it can – as here – be a powerful producer of energy and dynamism.

The alternative to end-stopped lines are those that run over – or, to put this in more technical terms, lines that display enjambment. To generalise somewhat, whereas end-stopped lines tend to convey a sense of order and assurance, lines that are enjambed are more likely to express a mind or a scene that is less settled and more fluid, even to the point of overflowing its boundaries. Just as we have a tendency to assume that end-stopped lines slow the pace of a poem down, we also tend to allow the pace of our reading to speed up when enjambment is present. Here too, though, this pace can be at odds with other aspects of the poem and thus be a source of great energy and tension. Indeed, some scholars would argue that this friction is necessarily generated by every single instance of enjambment, because this device combines in and of itself two incompatible motions: a desire to pause at the line’s end instigated by the white space that separates it from the everything else that is to follow; and a desire to continue reading straight on, which is prompted both by the syntax and by the absence of any restraining punctuation.

The following lines from Dylan Thomas’s ‘Prologue to the poems’ illustrates how the enhanced speed encouraged by enjambment can on occasion come into conflict with other formal devices that act as obstacles to this forward movement. The result is that we are awarded the sensation of freewheeling down a hillside at some speed, whilst at the same time feeling the full force of every stone and root our bicycle bumps into along the way, until we finally sail out into a temporary moment of equilibrium and poise at the bottom of the valley before we take a quick breath and begin to surge up the other side instead:

I build my bellowing ark
To the best of my love
As the flood begins,
Out of the fountainhead
Of fear, rage red, manalive,
Molten and mountainous to stream
Over the wound asleep
Sheep white hollow farms

To Wales in my arms.

As you may have observed as well as felt, the obstacles to the forward movement instigated by the many instances of enjambment in these lines include the alliteration of build and bellowingfountainhead and fear, rage and red, and molten and mountainous, and the assonance (internal rhyme) of asleep and Sheep. The last of these, moreover, takes place at the very moment of enjambment between one line and another and thereby elicits a friction, an explosion of energy, that adds a considerable degree of dynamism and raw physical excitement to our reading of the passage.

The lines I have just quoted from Thomas’s poetic ‘Prologue’ also gesture towards the important contribution end-rhyme (or its absence) can make to the manner in which we experience a poem’s line endings and to our understanding of the relationship between one line and another. Generally speaking, lines that have end-rhymes (such as farms and arms in this example) tend to slow down the pace of our reading and emphasise the gap between the end of one line and the start of the next, whereas lines that do not rhyme do not. In this case too, though, both the quickening and the slowing of the pace in this way can turn the dial either up and down on our sense of the poem’s energy and our own emotional engagement. It has often been remarked, for instance, that in a poem we know will rhyme, the word which introduces a new rhyme creates a sense of anticipation in us which is only diffused (or in some cases disappointed) when it eventually finds (or does not find) its partner shortly afterwards. (For more on this, see Rhyme).

Two additional notes on how to read and interpret the transition from one line of poetry to the next

Many readers of poetry naturally find themselves asking whether they should always pause at the end of one line before moving onto the next or whether they should carry straight on without a break and read the poem almost as if it had been set out as prose, if neither the sense nor the punctuation forbids it. There is no fixed answer to this question, since in this as in other respects, every good poem itself creates the rules by which it is to be read. Some poems are best experienced and enacted if we observe a significant pause at the end of each line, while others will have more of an impact if we press straight on from one line to the next. Even within one and the same poem, best practice may sometimes change from one line to the next.

The best piece of advice I can give, then, is this: try out different ways of reading aloud the transition from one line to the next and see which works best. There is a good chance that in doing so you will discover one speed and technique that either chimes with your understanding of the poem as a whole or that even brings unexpectedly to life a quality or feature of the poem you had previously overlooked. This would then be an aspect of form you could actively connect with your understanding of the meaning of the poem in any discussion.

It is also important you are aware that up until the early decades of the twentieth-century (in a practice that is still sometimes continued today), it was conventional for poems to be printed with a capital letter at the start of each new line, regardless of whether it also marked the start of a new sentence. This means you should never base your decision about whether to pause at the end of each line on the perception that the next line begins with a capital letter.

Exercise: R. S. Thomas’s ‘Comparisons’

One of the poems we are using as a case study in this module is R. S. Thomas’s ‘Comparisons.’ In the previous unit, we conducted an exercise in which we sought to acquire a preliminary understanding of how this poem uses devices distinctive to poetry to create effects that would not have been available to it if it had been written in prose (if you have not yet completed that exercise, I recommend you do so now. You can find it here). Drawing upon the general understanding you developed there of the relationship between what this poem says and how it says it, you should now focus in particular on how the poem’s use of line length and line endings contributes to the manner in which you engage with and respond to the speaker’s sense of loss and to his attempts to find an image that adequately portrays the woman he has lost and the relationship between him and her. You can find a copy of the poem here.

Once you have done this for yourself, you should watch the following video in which I discuss some of the ways in which I think the poem’s use of line contributes to our understanding of the poem as a whole:

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