Wikipaedia says this:

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.

This sounds complicated. The first sentence seems odd, speaking of "the beginning or the end". The second sentence mentions an "audible pause": when is there an audible pause?

  • For the first part, I’d say it’s just poorly worded. Since metrical feet in a verse are adjacent to each other, the end of each foot is also the beginning of the next one. – chirlu Feb 27 '16 at 5:15
  • @chirlu: Yeah, it certainly is poorly worded. The end of a word can coincide with the end of a foot, but how can it coincide with the beginning of a foot? Presumably the author meant "with the end of the first syllable of a foot", or something—at least then it would be meaningful. – Cerberus Feb 27 '16 at 22:27
  • @Cerberus I take "coincide with the beginning or end" to mean "between", following the metaphor of "cut"—that is, at a caesura, a foot is "cut" by the end of a word. – Ben Kovitz Feb 27 '16 at 23:04
  • @BenKovitz: But...then why not say "coincide with the end"? Why add "or beginning"? Besides, saying that the end of a word coincides with an infinitely narrow space between an end and a beginning is imo. strictly incorrect: an end coincides with an end. So your interpretation is probably right, but...I still think the wording is odd. – Cerberus Feb 27 '16 at 23:15
  • If you think of one foot ending where the next begins, sort of like bricks laid end-to-end, you can see how, when a word ends at the end of a foot, it also ends at the beginning of a foot: the next foot (except at the end of the last foot, of course). No infinitely narrow space between need be postulated. I'm only guessing at how the speaker was trying to deal with different ways that people can think about this, of course. The notion of boundaries has tripped up philosophers and mathematicians at least since Aristotle tried to sort this out. – Ben Kovitz Feb 27 '16 at 23:22

Ah, the joys of scansion! My understanding of the subject is solid but very basic, so I'll give you what I know, in the hope that somebody else can elaborate.

The Caesura in Ancient Poetry

The basic unit of Latin poetry is the foot: iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, amphibrach. A line of dactylic hexameter is obviously made up of six dactyls (a long syllable followed by two short syllables, marked —˘ ˘ ), some of which can be replaced with spondees (two long syllables, marked ——). Take the first line of the Æneid:

—    ˘   ˘ —     ˘     ˘  ——   ——   —  ˘   ˘    ——
Arma virumque cano, Troiæ qui primus ab oris

If you separate each foot, you come up with this:

—    ˘   ˘ /—     ˘     ˘ /— —/—   — /—  ˘    ˘  /——
Arma virumque cano, Troiæ qui primus ab oris

If, as Wikipedia suggests, a caesura occurs when a word ending comes during a foot rather than at the end of one, then there are caesuras (marked ||) in every foot of this line:

—    ˘ || ˘ /—    ˘ || ˘  /—|| —/—||—/ —   ˘  ||˘ / ——
Arma virumque cano, Troiæ qui primus ab oris

However, usually in Latin poetry when people talk about the caesura, they mean what's called the principal caesura, which comes either in the third or fourth foot. In this verse it comes in the third foot:

—    ˘   ˘ /—     ˘    ˘ /—|| —/— —  / —   ˘  ˘ /  ——
Arma virumque cano, Troiæ qui primus ab oris

There are various rules (some of them slippery, some of them disputed) for whether the principal caesura usually goes in the third or fourth foot.

The other thing to know about caesuras is that they're called strong when they follow a long syllable and weak when they follow a short syllable. So in the line above, the caesura is strong. In the following line, the caesura is in the third foot and is weak:

    —  —  / —   ˘  ˘ /—   ˘ ||  ˘ /—˘  ˘ /—     ˘     ˘ /——
Spargens humida mella soporiferumque papaver
(Virgil, Æneid, book 4)

The Caesura in Modern Poetry

In modern English poetry, the caesura is much, much easier to understand. It's just when you pause while reciting a verse, often (though not always) for punctuation:

It is for you we speak, || not for ourselves:
(Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale)

So basically that's what that sentence from Wikipedia means. :)

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  • 1
    Good answer, gratias! As you say, when we speak of caesurae, we're talking about a phenomenon that occurs once or twice per verse, not the first definition. Wikipaedia suggests that the Romans did use it in that now unused way, but I don't know. // I usually have a feeling about where I pause for a caesura in Homer/Virgil, but I'm never entirely sure why, nor am I sure my pauses are in the "accepted" positions. – Cerberus Feb 27 '16 at 22:25

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