Any particular line of poetry may be either end-stopped or enjambed. In end-stopped poetry, the writer places a natural pause at the end of each line (typically with a comma or period), which maintains a particular rhythm and emphasizes the rhymes. In contrast, an enjambed line does not stop at the end of a line, but runs right into the next without a pause. For example, in Shelley’s Ozymandius, we find the following enjambed lines (underlined):
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
While this poem features 5 enjambed lines, end-stopped lines nonetheless dominate—as they do in nearly every poem. The end-stopped lines support the sound-structure of the poem; in the enjambed lines, the rhyme continues to support the sound structure while the rhythm of the pausing makes a slight deviation to accommodate a larger phrase. “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert,” is 6 beats—too large for any one line (which are 5 beats each). But as this is the description that best suits the poet, he has opted for enjambing the line. It is a simple trade-off: better description at the cost of a regular rhythm of pauses. And since the structure is to support content (instead of dictating it), it is an excellent trade-off in this case. Since Shelley has not overburdened this poem with enjambment, the cost is minimal.
The amount of enjambment acceptable to Shelley’s readers in his time is rather greater than it is now—simply because modern readers do not read so much poetry. But reading poetry, as with reading various types of prose, is a skill that improves with practice—or atrophies with the lack of use. And this presents us with the following problem:
Metrical poetry is an auditory experience. However, most of our contact with poetry today is through reading—a visual experience. As a result, we are tempted to misinterpret an apparent visual cue (the end of a line) as a audio cue (a pause or stop), resulting in butchering an otherwise pleasant line. That is, we read, “Two vast an trunkless legs of stone. [Hard stop.] Stand in the desert.” And at the end of the poem, “Round the decay. Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare. The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
In other words, an unfamiliarity with enjambed poetry often results in us reading it very badly. And it is not simply a matter of making it sound bad: when we break up phrases like this, our minds also divide the portions into multiple units, trying to make sense of them separately instead of together. As a result, we often find the poem more difficult to understand. Many people who do not “get” a particular poem are wrestling with precisely this problem. One of my favorite poems by C.S. Lewis is heavily enjambed; and I find many people cannot even read it—but they like it if I read it aloud to them.
This problem isn’t really new: even Elizabethan playwrights occasionally had to give some of their actors their scripts written as prose, because those actors would keep pausing at the end of every poetic line, ruining their delivery. But the problem is more widespread now, as even colleges often fail to teach about metrical poetry and enjambment; and much of modern/post-modern “free verse” divides poetic lines without rule (and some free verse eschews all punctuation entirely). We stop at the ends of lines, whether we should or not.
So how do we fix this? Practice, of course. Only by reading poetry will we get better at reading it. So go and read. And pay attention to things like punctuation: if a line ends with no punctuation, you probably aren’t supposed to stop.
Here’s the first stanza of one of my poems:
Once upon a time when heroes fought
With iron sword and shield,
And once when military masters taught
New champions to wield
Their weapons ‘gainst the mightiest of foes…
Once when knights would battle giants, orges, trolls,
And even these would yield,
When armies of the mightiest of souls
Would storm what battlefield
Their emperors and rightful princes chose…
How many times did you pause when reading that?