“Enjambment! Or would You Prefer the French Version, Sir?”

Is there a word the sound of which-whether uttered correctly or incorrectly -makes you wince?

In French -for me, “enjambement” is not like that. It is rather such a sweet sounding, elegant intonation. I love to hear it pronounced by a good French speaker. And I , in turn, attempted, in my rudimentary French to repeat that sound as best I could when I used it teaching in tutorial.

But, turn the beautiful French sound into English and the resulting sound is a crude horror. It certainly does make me wince. “Enjambement” becomes “Enjambment” and with the silent “b” the English jam, then with the “m” doubled becomes your central syllable : so “Enjamment”. In French (la) “jambe ” refers to leg and “enjambement” is the action of straddling, which in verse becomes a meaning crossing two lines. It makes sense. In English “jam” in relation to the meaning makes no sense. “En-jamming” sounds as if it is the word for a trapped child in a lift unable to move or get out because hemmed in by hulking adults. Or it reminds me of that disgustingly cruel ways wasps were lured into a jammy jar filled with water into which intoxicated with the sugar they would inevitably eventually drop trapped and drowned: “Enjam-ment”.

So it was excruciating in poetry discussion having demonstrated the subtlety with which a poet had created a particularly effective way of conveying a meaning by the use of the technique my carefully enunciated French was responded with “Ah you mean “en-jam-(b)ment”!

We noted the subtlety in “There Was a Boy”:

Then sometimes in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise 

Here the suspense, the hanging action, listening for a sound is perfectly conveyed by the pause caused in moving from one line to the next.

Another example follows later in the poem:

A long half-hour together I have stood
Mute -looking at the grave in which he lies. 

where the sense of standing long and quiet at the graveside is strengthened by the lengthening of the movement between “stood” and “Mute” (both rhythically accented)

Perhaps the most famous observation on an example of enjambement that first enabled me to understand the power of the technique (before that it was just a word without point) comes where the famous critic F. R. Leavis writing on Keats in Revaluation takes the example of the gleaner in “To Autumn”:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across the brook. 

The gleaner’s task is to carry a basket of gleaned grain on their head. Leavis writes of this description:

In the step from the rime-word “keep”, across (so to speak) the pause enforced by the line-division to “Steady” the balancing movement of the gleaner is enacted.

Exactly like the movement of easing your way over stepping stones with a basket on your head, showing perfect balance! Leavis’ comment puts into words perfectly what is being done by the poet to achieve the effect. Once demonstrated we see the kind of enactment that the enjambement brings that enhances our identification with what is happening in the poem.

Such subtle enhancement deserves the pleasingly subtle French intonation of enjambement

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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