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What is a Caesura?

By Licia Morrow
Updated May 23, 2024
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A caesura is a pause that occurs in musical or poetical composition. A caesural pause in a line of poetry is dictated by normal speech rhythm, rather than meter. Additionally, a pause in conversation or a pause in music can each be referred to as a caesura. The etymology of the word caesura has Indo-European roots. Caesura comes from the Latin word meaning “a cutting.” Sometimes, a caesura occurs alongside punctuation, but it is usually present as a natural pause in the rhythm, speech, or melody rather than an intentioned one by author, speaker, or songwriter.

In poetry, there are two types of caesural breaks: feminine and masculine. The feminine caesura is a pause that occurs after a short, or non-stressed, syllable in a line of verse. The masculine caesural pause is characterized by a break that occurs after a long, or stressed, syllable. In prosody, or the studying of verse, a caesura breaks a metrical foot, or a group of stressed or unstressed syllables used as a unit of poetic meter, into two uneven parts.

In scansion, or the analysis of meter and stress in poetry through symbols, two vertical, parallel lines, called double pipes, identify a caesural pause.

Here is an example of caesural breaks as seen in William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The vertical, parallel lines are scansion tools and are not a part of the author’s original poem.

I will arise and go now, || for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping || with low sounds by the shore…

The caesura in the first line coincides with the author’s punctuated pause. However, the natural caesural pause in the second line breaks the foot into separate audible parts with no punctuation at all.

In music, a symbol of five horizontal, parallel lines with a double diagonal mark through the top lines denotes a pause or complete silence in the melody.

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