8 Famous Lines of Poetry: Where they come from and what they mean
From Elizabethan plays to tragic war poets, English literature is blessed with some incredibly moving and cleverly constructed verse.
Out of countless millions of lines of beautiful poetry, a few lines have resonated with a much wider audience to become some of the most memorable and quoted words in the English language. Some are endlessly paraphrased in newspaper headlines or popular culture; others find a new calling as inspirational quotes. But they’re all more complex than they seem to be when they’re taken out of context, and in this article, we look at where these famous quotations come from, who wrote them, and what they really mean.
1. “To be or not to be: that is the question”
We have our most illustrious playwright to thank for one of the most famous quotations in the English language. William Shakespeare wrote these immortal lines in Hamlet, and to make better sense of them, let’s look at a few more lines:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.”
Spoken by Hamlet himself, these words essentially talk about whether it’s better to live – and face one’s troubles – or die, and be rid of them that way. The implication here is that pain in life is inevitable – “outrageous fortune” has this fate in store for us, and it is for us to choose whether we face up to our “sea of troubles” or end them in death. However, the Elizabethans believed that those who committed suicide would be eternally damned (he refers later in this soliloquy to “the dread of something after death”) – which adds an extra complexity to Hamlet’s dilemma. Life, he implies, is bad; but death might be worse. This is a subtlety overlooked by the numerous references to this speech in popular culture.
2. “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”
A favourite quotation of the recently bereaved (or, more commonly, the recently dumped), this line does not, in fact, refer to someone who has lost a lover. The full quotation is:
“I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”
It was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, about his (probably purely platonic) friendship with Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage. The poem, entitled In Memoriam A.H.H., took Tennyson seventeen years to write, revealing how deeply his friend’s death had affected him. Unlike a funeral elegy to a particular person, however, it reflects on bigger concepts, such as the cruelty of nature and death. The poem also raises questions about the clash between traditional Biblical beliefs and the theories of contemporary scientists about evolution (it was published just before Darwin unveiled his theory of the origin of species); the poem’s other famous line is “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, which suggests the idea that nature may not be governed by divine intervention.
3. “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”
This beautiful line ends a short poem by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), entitled Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. The poem starts off by describing beautiful things such as “embroidered cloths” and “gold and silver light”; the speaker says that if he possessed these things he would spread them beneath the feet of the person to whom the poem is addressed. To add a couple of lines to the most famous line for context, the full quote is:
“But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
The speaker is Aedh, a character who forms a mythology of the poet’s own invention along with two other characters, collectively known as “the principles of the mind”. In many volumes of Yeats’ poetry “Aedh” is replaced by “He” in the title of this poem, and many people, reading this poem by itself, don’t realise this mythological background. Instead, the powerful final line gets quoted by itself because so many people can relate to the idea of entrusting their hopes and dreams to the person they love.
4. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the road less traveled by”
This evocative line comes from The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost (1874-1963), an enormously popular but frequently misunderstood poem. The poem ostensibly describes someone walking through a “yellow wood” and coming across a fork in the path. The poem is about choosing which of these two paths to take; roads are a common metaphor in poetry and usually represent paths in life. The “road less travelled” can therefore be taken to mean choosing an unconventional path in life.
However, if you read the poem carefully, you see that the speaker has not actually chosen the less travelled road; he chooses the one he initially describes as “having perhaps the better claim, / Because it was grassy and wanted wear”. In fact, though, both roads are the same: “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same” and “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” The path the speaker describes as “less travelled” is actually saved for another day – a day he knows is unlikely to come. He’s describing this with a dose of irony, predicting that, in the future (“I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence”), he’ll tell people that he took the “road less travelled” and that it “made all the difference”, even though he didn’t, because it will present him in a better light. This reflects the idea that when he looks back on his life from the perspective of old age, he might try to justify the choices he made, and make out that he chose to follow an unconventional path; even though at the time, he knew full well that he didn’t. Hence the “sigh” – because he doesn’t believe it himself. This sense of the regrets one may experience in old age is also present in the title of the poem – which is not, as is often misremembered, “The Road Less Traveled” but “The Road Not Taken”.
5. “If I should die, think only this of me”
Often quoted out of context, and paraphrased by Blackadder, this famous, haunting line is the first line of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, which is the final sonnet in a collection entitled 1914. It continues: “That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.” The “England” theme continues throughout the poem; it’s mentioned six times in the poem’s fourteen lines and it’s portrayed as so idyllic that the poem ends with the idea of an “English heaven” – implying that God was on the British side, not that of the Germans. The Soldier represents a highly idealised and sentimental view of going to war that many doubt would have been written later in the war; it was written in 1914, when the true scale of the carnage of the First World War had yet to unfold. Certainly, its tone is very different indeed from the poems that would emerge from the trenches later in the war from the pens of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among others. Ironically, Brooke himself died a year later not in the trenches, but in the Aegean, having contracted blood poisoning through a small wound.
6. “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”
This line is a favourite with journalists in times of national flood crises. It comes from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), a very, very long ballad told from the point of view of a sailor who has just returned from an epic voyage. The most famous symbol in this poem is the Albatross, which leads the ship away from Antarctica (to which it had been blown off course by a storm), only for the mariner to shoot it. This turns out to have been a move that doomed them to ill-fortune, as it arouses the anger of spirits, who carry the ship into calm water, with no wind, so that it cannot move.
This is where this oft-quoted line comes from: the crew of the ship suffer extreme thirst, surrounded by ocean water (“Water, water, everywhere”) that is undrinkable (“Nor any drop to drink”). The poem gets more surreal after this, with the appearance of a ghostly ship upon which Death is playing cards with “the Night-mare Life in Death” for the souls of the mariner and his fellow crew. One by one the rest of the crew dies, and the mariner lifts the curse of the albatross by seeing the true beauty of the sea creatures he once dismissed as “slimy”. It’s thought that this extraordinary tale may have been inspired by the voyages of Captain Cook, whose astronomer, William Wales, was Coleridge’s tutor. The poet Wordsworth said that the poem came about after a walk in the Quantock Hills he had taken with his sister Dorothy and Coleridge, during which Wordsworth had talked about a book he was reading by Captain George Shelvocke, which contained an account of shooting dead an albatross.
7. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”
Conjuring up wonderful images of the delights of Autumn, this line opens To Autumn by John Keats (1795-1821), inspired by a walk the poet took near Winchester on autumnal evening in 1819. In three stanzas, this exceptionally popular poem describes different characteristics of the autumn, starting with its fruitfulness, moving on to the hard labour of harvesting these fruits and preparing for winter (the “cider-press”, “the granary” and “a half-reap’d furrow” are all mentioned), and finally the aspect of autumn that sees life decay, with words such as “wailful”, “mourn” and “soft dying” used to create a sense of mourning for the loss of spring and summer. The tripartite structure of the poem creates a sense of movement through time, both from early to mid to late autumn, and from morning to afternoon to evening; the first (and most famous) line mentions “mists”, suggesting the early morning. Tragically, this was to be Keats’ last poem. Struggling with ill-health, he moved to Rome the following year, where he died a few months later.
8. “I wandered lonely as a cloud”
William Wordsworth’s most famous poem is often known by the title Daffodils, which gives you all the clues you need about the subject of this poem. It was inspired by a walk the poet took with his sister Dorothy in the Lake District in 1804, during which they chanced upon a long strip of daffodils:
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Personally, I find the simile “lonely as a cloud” surprising. If you live in the UK you’ll know that you never see just one cloud – the sky is full of them. And so I think that, rather than suggesting the idea of loneliness (as might be suggested by considering this line superficially and completely out of context), this popular line actually portrays the opposite – one is not lonely when in the company of nature. This seems to ring true later in the poem with the mention of “the bliss of solitude”; loneliness is certainly not portrayed in a negative light in this poem. Similarly, the sea of daffodils are anything but lonely in each other’s company, dancing together in the breeze. It’s a simple poem that describes man’s closeness to nature, and it’s made the Lake District even more popular during the spring.
There are so many more wonderful lines of poetry we could have included, but we’ve run out of time for now. If you have a favourite line of verse, we’d love to hear it in the comments below!
Image credits: banner; Hamlet; Tennyson memorial; tread softly; fork in the road; WWI; Ancient Mariner; autumn; daffodils.
48 Of The Most Beautiful Lines Of Poetry
44. From "Auguries of Innocence" by William Blake:
"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
To hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour."
Suggested by Charlotte S., via Facebook
45. From "Oh Yes" by Charles Bukowski:
"there are worse things than
but it often takes decades
to realize this
and most often
when you do
it's too late
and there's nothing worse
Suggested by Lelia S., via Facebook
46. From "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
"We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
Suggested by juliaallisonframpton
47. From "'Hope' is the thing with feathers - (314)" by Emily Dickinson:
"Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without words,
And never stops-at all."
Suggested by Belle M., via Facebook
50 of the most poignant lines from poetry to read today
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Just one beautiful line of poetry can stay with you forever. So feel inspired with these quotes from poets including Rupi Kaur, Sylvia Plath and Audre Lorde.
“Poetry begins with a lump in the throat.” So said the late, great Robert Frost. While Frost was referring to the poet’s writing process, the same can be said of poetry’s ability to strike a chord. Just a few beautifully composed lines can have more power and pull than whole reams of prose.
Below, we’ve rounded up 50 of the very best and most moving lines of poetry ever written – the ones that, once read, will stay with you for days, months and even years to come. Prepare to be inspired by wise words for 2020.
Hope Is The Thing With Feathers
Hope is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops at all —
From Hope Is The Thing With Feathers by Emily Dickinson
my mother sacrificed her dreams
Lionmouth Door Knocker
At any given moment in the middle of a city
there’s a million epiphanies occurring,
in the blurring of the world beyond the curtain
From Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest
Wolf and Woman
Courage is a Muscle
At home, by the kitchen table
I watch my mother’s hands spin the yarn
of meals and housework
of duty and obligation.
From Mother by Nadine Aisha Jassat
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
From I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Unbearable Weight of Staying
I think of lovers as trees, growing to and
from one another, searching for the same light.
From The Unbearable Weight of Staying by Warsan Shire
I am not cruel, just truthful —
The eye of a little god, four cornered.
From Mirror by Sylvia Plath
Each morning I stitch a scowl
over my smile. Let my eyes sass
every person standing between me
& the bus stop.
From Stank by Fatimah Asghar
A Woman Speaks
I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
and not white.
From A Woman Speaks by Audre Lorde
To My Wife
And when wind and winter harden
All the loveless land,
It will whisper of the garden,
You will understand.
From To My Wife by Oscar Wilde
Stop All the Clocks
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
From Stop All The Clocks by WH Auden
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils
From I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth
Nancy Meyers and My Dream of Whiteness
I can’t be sorry
enough. I have learned
everything is urgent.
From Nancy Meyers and My Dream of Whiteness by Morgan Parker
And who, when it comes to the crunch, can live
with a heart of gold?
From Mrs Midas by Carol Ann Duffy
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
From Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!
From If by Rudyard Kipling
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
From Howl by Allan Ginsberg
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
From The Road Not Taken byRobert Frost
i carry your heart with me
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
From i carry your heart with me by EE Cummings
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
From Warning by Jenny Joseph
How Do I Love Thee?
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
From How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
homage to my hips
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
From homage to my hips by Lucille Clifton
You Are Hope In A Human Being
For the young who want to
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.
From For the young who want to by Marge Piercy
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run
From To Autumn byJohn Keats
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate
From Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare
I wish I could walk for a day and a night,
And find me at dawn in a desolate place,
With never the rut of a road in sight,
Or the roof of a house, or the eyes of a face.
From Departure by Edna St. Vincent Millay
A Daughter of Eve
A fool I was to sleep at noon,
And wake when night is chilly
Beneath the comfortless cold moon;
A fool to pluck my rose too soon,
A fool to snap my lily.
From A Daughter of Eve by Christina Rossetti
Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
From Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
If You Forget Me
if each day,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated
From If You Forget Me by Pablo Neruda
Let America Be America Again
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
From Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes
Heart, we will forget him!
Heart, we will forget him!
You and I, to-night!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.
From Heart, we will forget him! by Emily Dickinson
If You Think You are Beaten
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins
Is the man WHO THINKS HE CAN!”
From If You Think You are Beaten by Walter D. Wintle
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
From Trees by Joyce Kilmer
When You are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep
From When You are Old by WB Yeats
Scarcely a tear to shed;
Hardly a word to say;
The end of a summer day;
Sweet Love dead.
From An Evening by Gwendolyn Brooks
Dear, Though the Night Is Gone
Our whisper woke no clocks,
We kissed and I was glad
At everything you did,
Indifferent to those
Who sat with hostile eyes
In pairs on every bed,
Arms round each other’s neck,
Inert and vaguely sad.
From Dear, Though the Night Is Gone by WH Auden
Do not go gentle into that good night
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
From Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas
Tree you are,
Moss you are,
You are violets with wind above them.
A child - so high - you are,
And all this is folly to the world.
From A Girl by Ezra Pound
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
From Happiness by Raymond Carver
The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls
Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
From The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A Red, Red Rose
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
From A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns
The Children's Hour
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.
From The Children’s Hour by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When We Two Parted
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.
From When We Two Parted by George (Lord) Byron
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The line is a fundamental unit in verse, carrying meaning both horizontally across the page and vertically from one line to the next.
From A Poet’s Glossary
The following definition of the term line is reprinted from A Poet's Glossary by Edward Hirsch.
A unit of meaning, a measure of attention. The line is a way of framing poetry. All verse is measured by lines. On its own, the poetic line immediately announces its difference from everyday speech and prose. It creates its own visual and verbal impact; it declares its self-sufficiency. Paul Claudel called the fundamental line “an idea isolated by blank space.” I would call it “words isolated by blank space,” because the words can go beyond the idea, they can plunge deeper than thought. Adam Zagajewski says, “Tragedy and joy collide in every line.”
“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines,” James Longenbach asserts in The Art of the Poetic Line (2008). “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.” There are one-line poems called monostiches, which are timed to deliver a single poignancy. An autonomous line in a poem makes sense on its own, even if it is a fragment or an incomplete sentence. It is end-stopped and completes a thought. An line carries the meaning over from one line to the next. Whether end-stopped or enjambed, however, the line in a poem moves horizontally, but the rhythm and sense also drive it vertically, and the meaning continues to accrue as the poem develops and unfolds.
In “Summa Lyrica” (1992), Allen Grossman proposes a theory of the three modular versions of the line in English:
1. Less than ten syllables more or less.
2. Ten syllables more or less.
3. More than ten syllables more or less.
The ten-syllable or blank verse line provides a kind of norm in English poetry. Wordsworth (1771–1850) and Frost (1874–1963) both perceived that the blank verse line could be used to give the sensation of actual speech, a person engaging others. “The topic of the line of ten is conflict,” Grossman says, which is why it has been so useful in drama, where other speakers are always nearby. It has a feeling of mutuality. In the line of less than ten syllables, then, there is a sense that something has been taken away or subtracted, attenuated or missing. There is a greater silence that surrounds it, a feeling of going under speech, which is why it has worked well for poems of loss. It has also proved useful for the stripped-down presentation of objects, what the Imagists called “direct treatment of the thing.” We feel the clutter has been cleared away to create a clean space. Poems with drastically reduced lines aspire to be lyrics of absolute concentration, rhythmic economy. The line of more than ten syllables consequently gives a feeling of going above or beyond the parameters of oral utterance, or over them, beyond speech itself. The long lines widen the space for reverie. “The speaker in the poem bleeds outward as in trance or sleep toward other states of himself,” Grossman says. This line, which has a dreamlike associativeness, also radiates an oracular feeling, which is why it has so often been the line of prophetic texts, visionary poetry.
Read more from this collection.
Subdivision of a poem
A line is a unit of language into which a poem or play is divided. The use of a line operates on principles which are distinct from and not necessarily coincident with grammatical structures, such as the sentence or single clauses in sentences. Although the word for a single poetic line is verse, that term now tends to be used to signify poetic form more generally. A line break is the termination of the line of a poem and the beginning of a new line.
The process of arranging words using lines and line breaks is known as lineation, and is one of poetry's defining features. A distinct numbered group of lines in verse is normally called a stanza. A title, in some poems, is considered a line.
General conventions in Western poetry
Conventions that determine what might constitute line in poetry depend upon different constraints, aural characteristics or scripting conventions for any given language. On the whole, where relevant, a line is generally determined either by units of rhythm or repeating aural patterns in recitation that can also be marked by other features such as rhyme or alliteration, or by patterns of syllable-count.
In Western literary traditions, use of line is arguably the principal feature which distinguishes poetry from prose. Even in poems where formal metre or rhyme is weakly observed or absent, the convention of line continues on the whole to be observed, at least in written representations, although there are exceptions (see Degrees of license). In such writing, simple visual appearance on a page (or any other written layout) remains sufficient to determine poetic line, and this sometimes leads to the suggestion that the work in question is no longer a poem but "chopped up prose". A dropped line is a line broken into two parts, with the second indented to remain visually sequential.
In the standard conventions of Western literature, the line break is usually but not always at the left margin. Line breaks may occur mid-clause, creating enjambment, a term that literally means 'to straddle'. Enjambment "tend[s] to increase the pace of the poem", whereas end-stopped lines, which are lines that break on caesuras (thought-pauses often represented by ellipsis), emphasize these silences and slow the poem down.
Line breaks may also serve to signal a change of movement or to suppress or highlight certain internal features of the poem, such as a rhyme or slant rhyme. Line breaks can be a source of dynamism, providing a method by which poetic forms imbue their contents with intensities and corollary meanings that would not have been possible to the same degree in other forms of text.
Distinct forms of line, as defined in various verse traditions, are usually categorised according to different rhythmical, aural or visual patterns and metrical length appropriate to the language in question. (See Metre.)
One visual convention that is optionally used to convey a traditional use of line in printed settings is capitalisation of the first letter of the first word of each line regardless of other punctuation in the sentence, but it is not necessary to adhere to this. Other formally patterning elements, such as end-rhyme, may also strongly indicate how lines occur in verse.
In the speaking of verse, a line ending may be pronounced using a momentary pause, especially when its metrical composition is end-stopped, or it may be elided such that the utterance can flow seamlessly over the line break in what can be called run-on.
Degrees of license
In more "free" forms, and in free verse in particular, conventions for the use of line become, arguably, more arbitrary and more visually determined such that they may only be properly apparent in typographical representation and/or page layout.
One extreme deviation from a conventional rule for line can occur in concrete poetry where the primacy of the visual component may over-ride or subsume poetic line in the generally regarded sense, or sound poems in which the aural component stretches the concept of line beyond any purely semantic coherence.
At another extreme, the prose poem simply eschews poetic line altogether.
Examples of line breaks
— E. E. Cummings
The line break within 'must/n't' allows a double reading of the word as both 'must' and 'mustn't', whereby the reader is made aware that old age both enjoins and forbids the activities of youth. At the same time, the line break subverts 'mustn't': the forbidding of a certain activity—in the poem's context, the moral control the old try to enforce upon the young—only serves to make that activity more enticing.
While Cummings's line breaks are used in a poetic form that is intended to be appreciated through a visual, printed medium, line breaks are also present in poems predating the advent of printing.
Examples are to be found, for instance, in Shakespeare's sonnets. Here are two examples of this technique operating in different ways in Shakespeare's Cymbeline:
In the first example, the line break between the last two lines cuts them apart, emphasizing the cutting off of the head:
With his own sword,
Which he did wave against my throat, I have ta'en
His head from him.
— William Shakespeare, Cymbeline
In the second example, the text before the line break retains a meaning in isolation from the contents of the new line. This meaning is encountered by the reader before it being modified by the text after the line break, which clarifies that, instead of "I, as a person, as a mind, am 'absolute,'" it 'really' means: "I am absolutely sure it was Cloten":
I am absolute;
'Twas very Cloten.
— William Shakespeare, Cymbeline
In every type of literature there is a metrical pattern that can be described as "basic" or even "national"[dubious – discuss]. The most famous and widely used line of verse in English prosody is the iambic pentameter, while one of the most common of traditional lines in surviving classical Latin and Greek prosody was the hexameter. In modern Greek poetry hexameter was replaced by line of fifteen syllables. In French poetry alexandrine is the most typical pattern. In Italian literature the hendecasyllable, which is a metre of eleven syllables, is the most common line. In Serbian ten syllable lines were used in long epic poems. In Polish poetry two types of line were very popular, an 11-syllable one, based on Italian verse and 13-syllable one, based both on Latin verse and French alexandrine. Classical Sanskrit poetry, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, was most famously composed using the shloka.
- English iambic pentameter:
- Like to Ahasuerus, that shrewd prince,
- I will begin — as is, these seven years now,
- My daily wont — and read a History
- (Written by one whose deft right hand was dust
- To the last digit, ages ere my birth)
- Of all my predecessors, Popes of Rome:
- For though mine ancient early dropped the pen,
- Yet others picked it up and wrote it dry,
- Since of the making books there is no end.
- (Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book 10, Book The Pope, lines 1-9)
- Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab orīs
- Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīniaque vēnit
- lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
- vī superum saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram;
- multa quoque et bellō passūs, dum conderet urbem,
- inferretque deōs Latiō, genus unde Latīnum,
- Albānīque patrēs, atque altae moenia Rōmae.
- (Virgil, Aeneid, Book I, lines 1-7)
- Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
- Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs :
- Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles,
- Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs.
- (Arthur Rimbaud, Le bateau ivre, lines 1-4)
- Per me si va ne la città dolente,
- per me si va ne l'etterno dolore,
- per me si va tra la perduta gente.
- Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
- fecemi la divina podestate,
- la somma sapïenza e ’l primo amore.
- (Dante Alighieri, Divina commedia, Inferno, Canto III, lines 1-6)
Pioneers of the freer use of line in Western culture include Whitman and Apollinaire.
Where the lines are broken in relation to the ideas in the poem it affects the feeling of reading the poetry. For example, the feeling may be jagged or startling versus soothing and natural, which can be used to reinforce or contrast the ideas in the poem. Lines are often broken between words, but there is certainly a great deal of poetry where at least some of the lines are broken in the middles of words: this can be a device for achieving inventive rhyme schemes.
In general, line breaks divide the poetry into smaller units called lines, (this is a modernisation of the term verse) which are often interpreted in terms of their self-contained meanings and aesthetic values: hence the term "good line". Line breaks, indentations, and the lengths of individual words determine the visual shape of the poetry on the page, which is a common aspect of poetry but never the sole purpose of a line break. A dropped line is a line broken into two parts, in which the second part is indented to remain visually sequential through spacing. In metric poetry, the places where the lines are broken are determined by the decision to have the lines composed from specific numbers of syllables.
Prose poetry is poetry without line breaks in accordance to paragraph structure as opposed to stanza. Enjambment is a line break in the middle of a sentence, phrase or clause, or one that offers internal (sub)text or rhythmically jars for added emphasis. Alternation between enjambment and end-stopped lines is characteristic of some complex and well composed poetry, such as in Milton's Paradise Lost.
A new line can begin with a lowercase or capital letter. New lines beginning with lowercase letters vaguely correspond with the shift from earlier to later poetry: for example, the poet John Ashbery usually begins his lines with capital letters prior to his 1991 book-length poem "Flow-Chart", whereas in and after "Flow-Chart" he almost invariably begins lines with lowercase letters unless the beginning of the line is also the beginning of a new sentence. There is, however, some much earlier poetry where new lines begin with lowercase letters.
Beginning a line with an uppercase letter when the beginning of the line does not coincide with the beginning of a new sentence is referred to by some as "majusculation". (this is an invented term derived from majuscule). The correct term is a coroneted verse.
In T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, where ambiguity abounds, a line break in the opening (ll. 5–7) starts things off.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Because the lines start with capitalized letters, Eliot could be saying "Earth" as the planet or "earth" as the soil.
- ^Hazelton, Rebecca (September 8, 2014). "Learning the Poetic Line". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 5 June 2019.
- ^See, for example, the account in Geoffrey N Leech A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry, Longman, 1969. Section 7.3 "Metre and the Line of Verse", pp.111-19 in the 1991 edition.
- ^See  for an example.
- ^ abMargaret Ferguson; Mary Jo Salter; Jon Stallworthy, eds. (2005). The Norton Anthology of Poetry. W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 2034. ISBN .
- ^'Classroom synonym'.com
- ^Metre, prosody at Encyclopedia Britannica
- ^Hexameter, poetry at Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- ^Alexandrine, prosody at Encyclopaedia Britannica
- ^Claudio Ciociola, Endecasillabo at Encyclopedia italiana.
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