Line (poetry)

A line is a unit of language into which a poem or play is divided, which 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.[1]

A distinct numbered group of lines in verse is normally called a stanza.

General conventions in Western poetry

A 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.[2]

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".[3] A dropped line is a line broken into two parts, with the second indented to remain visually sequential.

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 (in languages represented by alphabetic scripts) 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.


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. Classical Sanskrit poetry, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, was most famously composed using the shloka.

Pioneers of the freer use of line in Western culture include Whitman and Apollinaire.

See also


  2. 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.
  3. See for an example.
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