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Macro-Typography of Poetry: 9

Annex: Caesurae

Very occasionally, a poet will prescribe a spatial caesura, that is to say a break in mid-verse which is of such great importance in spoken delivery that it must be made visually unmistakeable by letting the text drop down a line. This practice became almost common in 20th century poetry, but William Wordsworth did the same thing back in 1798 with his Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, a multipage poem with no indenting scheme and no division into stanzas. A caesura is usually obvious enough to the reader from the appearance of punctuation in mid-verse, with commas or stops. Wordsworth evidently wanted three especially strong caesurae, in effect dividing his poem into four stanzas. All three dislocations occur in mid-line.

The standards-compliant way to achieve a spatial caesura with a stylesheet is to set a vertical-align property for the span of text that must be downshifted. The distance the span must be shifted has to be expressed in a curious way: with a percentage. If the text has to be shifted downwards by a complete line, the notation is -100%. By the same reasoning, it could thus be shifted half a line upwards with 50% (the plus sign being implicit).

The example from Tintern Abbey displays correctly in the Internet Explorer 6 and Netscape 6 browsers: the spacing from the previous and subsequent lines is perfectly regular. The only mark-up needed was to label the downshifted section of the verse-line as follows:

<span class="caesura">These beauteous forms,</span>

This is the only recommendation you will find anywhere on this website that does not work with Microsoft's Windows Internet Explorer 5.0 and 5.5 browsers. Some ingenuity is required to meet the needs of IE5 without breaking the code for other browsers. A workaround that has been suggested by Micah Sittig is to use a <BR> to create an empty line. The text must first be marked up as follows:

<span class="caesura">These beauteous forms,</span><br>&nbsp;

The span is then styled as follows: .caesura { position: relative; top: 1.2em;} The amount of displacement (1.2 ems) was arrived at by a process of trial and error and works for a range of spacings between verse-lines, but it is an approximation. See a demonstration, once again of Tintern Abbey. It is to be hoped that this workaround will no longer be needed in two or three years, when the majority of web visitors have upgraded to the newest browsers. Provided the poetry source files are correctly marked up, it should be possible at a later date to convert entire collections to use the standards-compliant vertical-align method as described above.

The vertical-align technique can in fact be used to present any stepped-down line including the eccentric dislocations in the poetry of E.E. Cummings. Consider for example how you would mark up O Sweet Spontaneous without using any HTML fudges.

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Examples: • SimpleWrappingRhymeSonnetCadenceCascadeStanzasCaesura

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