The function of enjambment in poetry is typically to allow an idea to continue beyond the limitations of a single line, often to reinforce certain ideas within the lines themselves.Enjambment can also be used to surprise a reader, by setting up one idea in the first line and then changing that idea in some way in the second line. It can also be used to maintain a rhythm that is stronger than perpetual end-stopping. By using enjambment, a poet is able to effectively pull the reader along from one line to the next and establish a fast rhythm or pace for a poem.
Enjambment in poetry is the extension of an idea beyond the break of a line in a stanza of a poem. When each sentence or similar grammatical structure ends with each line, it is referred to as end-stopping. Enjambment is the opposite of this, and allows a sentence or other structure to continue past the end of the line and continue for one or more lines.
Examples of enjambment can be found in William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116:”
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:”
The first two lines are examples of enjambed lines, in which the line breaks in the middle of the sentence. The last two lines are known as end-stopped lines, which end with punctuation that facilitates a pause in the reading. The degree of enjambment can vary depending on where the line break occurs within the structure of the sentence. The first line here is more noticeably enjambed in this example, because it breaks between the subject and the verb. The reader is left with confusion at the end of the line as to where the sentence is headed, or what the speaker is trying to convey. The second line is an example of less severe enjambment because it ends before a dependent clause; “Love is not love” could stand on its own as a full sentence, so the line break here is not as jarring as the first line break. Still, the line is not punctuated, and the reader must continue on for a deeper explanation of the poem’s meaning.
Enjambment can be used to create different effects in poetry. In some cases, its abruptness can increase the speed and pace of the poem, as the reader must hurriedly catch up to the next line to extract the meaning from the sentence. In the above example, Shakespeare does not include the first verb until the second line, thus forcing the reader to rush to the second line to make sense of the first line. Increased speed as well as increased ambiguity can jar the reader’s perceptions and create confusion; in some poems, this is the end goal of enjambment, while others simply use it to remain within the meter or rhyme scheme.