Free verse (occasionally referred to as vers libre) is a term describing various styles of poetry that are not written using strict meter or rhyme, but that still are recognizable as poetry. Free verse is a relatively new form of poetry that has only truly come into its own within the last hundred years. Although there are occasional early examples of unmetered, unrhymed poetry, the conception of free verse as a form in its own right can be traced to the latter half of the nineteenth century. One of the earliest and most significant authors of free verse was Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass, a volume of powerful and completely unrhymed and unmetered poems would forever change the shape of poetry, both in English and in other languages. European poets such as the Symbolists Jules Laforgue and Gustave Kahn were directly influenced by Whitman's example, and a semi-unmetered, unrhymed style of poetry would begin to dominate European literature by the turn of the century.
As the twentieth century continued into the dynamic experimentation of Modernism, free verse became an ever-more-popular medium for a number of poets who hoped to revolutionize poetry and literature itself. Ezra Pound's magnum opus, The Cantos, one of the most important touchstones in Modernist poetry, was written largely in free verse. In Spain Federico Garcia-Lorca pioneered the use of free verse for the creation of highly charged political poetry that would be carried on by latter generations of Spanish-language poets such as Pablo Neruda and Victor Domingo Silva. In the aftermath of World War II, many poets felt compelled to respond to Theodor Adorno's famous injunction "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," predominantly by writing poetry in new forms that could do justice to the changing world. In most cases, the new forms that emerged in the post-World War II were variations of free verse, as was the case with such notable poets as Paul Celan, Robert Lowell, or W.G. Sebald.
Free verse has fallen somewhat out of fashion with the closing decades of the twentieth century, although it remains the single most popular verse-form in most languages. Although some writers have criticized free verse for inspiring poets to write sloppy poems, many others would argue that free verse has been the quintessential verse-form of the twentieth century and that it has, for better or for worse, forever altered the ways of writing poetry throughout the world.
Types of Free Verse
The literary critic Philip Hobsbaum identifies three major types of free verse:
- Iambic free verse, which retains a loose meter and which is an extension of the work of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists such as Shakespeare and Jonson. Practitioners of this sort of free verse include T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and W. H. Auden.
- Cadenced free verse verse, which is technically unrhymed and unmetered but still retains a sense of rhythm through the repetition of words and phrases, in the manner of Walt Whitman.
- Free verse proper, where meter and rhyme is completely irregular.
History and Criticism
An early usage of the term appears in 1915 in the anonymous preface to the first Imagist anthology, written by the Modernist poet Richard Adlington. The preface states: "We do not insist upon 'free-verse' as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty." In a general sense, this has been the ethos of many free verse ever since. Most poets of free verse acknowledge and value other, more formal styles of poetry; nonetheless, they argue that free verse stands out as a sort of "principle of liberty," reinforcing the notion that anything and everything is possible in literature.
The ideal of the early practitioners of free verse was well described by Ezra Pound, who wrote: "As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome." Many modernist poets viewed formal rhyme and meter to be too constrictive, reducing poetry to monotonous patterns that prevented the poet from fully expressing him or herself. In this vein, D. H. Lawrence wrote that Whitman "pruned away his clichés—perhaps his clichés of rhythm as well as of phrase" and that all one could do with free verse was "get rid of the stereotyped movements and the old hackneyed associations of sound and sense".
In counterargument to this, some poets have explained that free verse, despite its freedom, must still display some elements of form in order to intelligible. T. S. Eliot wrote, for instance, that, "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job." Likewise, Robert Frost famously remarked that writing free verse was like "playing tennis without a net".
In ‘The Imagist Poem’ by William Pratt, he writes that "Free verse" is a term which is so often misused as to need redefinition each time it is used but there is no mistaking the fact that for some, free verse meant form not formlessness. He quotes the poet and one of the first of the Imagists, T.E. Hulme, in a lecture where he said that he understood that poetry could not exist without form and that it was harder to write poems of this kind of organic, or natural form and "that one is tempted to fall back to the comforting and easy arms of the old, regular metre, which takes away all the trouble for us."
As the name vers libre suggests, this technique of using more irregular cadences is often said to derive from the practices of nineteenth century French poets like Arthur Rimbaud, Gustave Kahn and especially Jules Laforgue. However, in English a tradition of unmetered and unrhymed verse can be traced back at least as far as the King James Bible. Walt Whitman, who was deeply influenced by the style of the King James Bible, was the major precursor for many modern poets writing free verse, though they were often reluctant to acknowledge his influence.
Many poets of the Victorian era experimented with form. Christina Rossetti, Coventry Patmore, and T. E. Brown all wrote examples of unpatterned rhymed verse. Matthew Arnold's poem Philomela contains some rhyme but is very free. Poems such as W. E. Henley's 'Discharged' (from his In Hospital sequence), and Robert Louis Stevenson's poems 'The Light-Keeper' and 'The Cruel Mistress' could be counted early examples of free verse.
- D. H. Lawrence, from introduction to New Poems.
- T.S. Eliot, "The Music of Poetry," 1942.
- "The Figure a Poem Makes," in The Collected Poetry & Prose of Robert Frost, New York: Library of America, 2002.
- see note 25 on page LX of The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse, Penguin Classics, 1999. ISBN 0-14-044578-1
- Cooper, G. Burns. Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse. Stanford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-804-72938-7
- Hartman, Charles O. Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody. Northwestern University Press, 1980. ISBN 0-810-11316-3
- Hobsbaum, Philip. Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form. London: Methuen, 1970.
- Kirby-Smith, H.T. The Origins of Free Verse. University of Michigan, 1996. ISBN 0-472-08565-4
- Pratt, William (ed.). The Imagist Poem, Modern Poetry in Miniature Anthology. Storyline Press.
- Steele, Timothy. Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter. University of Arkansas Press, 1990. ISBN 1-557-28125-4
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