The word enjambment comes from the French verb enjamber, meaning to span, straddle or stride, literally to step seamlessly from one line of verse to the next. Looking at punctuation often seems a good way to spot it. If there’s punctuation at the end of the line, the line is end-stopped, i.e. you pause at the end of the line. If there’s no punctuation, then the line is enjambed (or run-on, an alternative term) because you carry on reading seamlessly over the line-break.
How can a poem mean one thing and simultaneously its opposite? As you can see from the text and two translations (scroll down for these), this week’s poem manages it by punctuation (and, I would argue, by poetics too). Christopher Cannon, in his recent introduction to Middle English Literature (2013) shows how this poem cleverly insinuates that ‘trouble underlies any possible optimism’ (p. 46), that this complacent description of social justice is in fact a coded description of social disorder. The same technique of writing texts which can be punctuated to produce two different meanings is used for comic effect in Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (Merygreek’s love letter) and in Peter Quince’s Prologue in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act V.i).
Setting about a guide to poetics throws up some simple, central and yet terrifyingly big questions. When, for example, does enjambment (re-)start in English verse? Enjambed lines of verse are frequent in Old English, but much less common in pre-1350 poetry. Donka Minkova’s excellent introduction to ‘The Forms of Verse’ in Peter Brown’s A Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c. 1350-c.1500 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007) asserts that before Chaucer ‘Middle English verse was end-stopped, meaning that each line-ending coincided with a major syntactic break – the end of a clause or phrase’ (p. 187). Chaucer is claimed as the re-originator of a ‘new and unexpected’ (p. 188) verse innovation, namely enjambed or run-on lines ‘in which a syntactic […] unit straddles two lines’. She gives as examples House of Fame 349–50 and 582–83.