Blank Verse

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Blank verse is a type of poetry that is distinguished by a regular meter, but no rhyme. In English, the meter most commonly used with blank verse has been iambic pentameter. Blank verse is often considered to be the quintessential form of English dramatic poetry: All of the major plays of the Elizabethan period and many of the great epic poems of the English canon are in blank verse. In addition to being a powerfully dramatic form, blank verse has also proved to be one of the most durable and versatile of all verse-forms both in English and other languages. As rhyme faded in popularity towards the beginning of the twentieth century, blank verse became more and more common in both short and long poems. It has remained in use even through the most experimental periods of literary Modernism and it remains a popular form among poets to this day.

The Origins of Blank Verse

The first known use of blank verse in the English language was by Henry Howard, Earl of Arundel and Surrey in his interpretation of Virgil's Æneid (c. 1554). Howard was possibly inspired by the Latin original, as classical Latin verse (as well as Greek verse) did not use rhyme.

Christopher Marlowe was the first English author to make full use of the potential of blank verse, and also established it as the dominant verse form for English drama in the age of Elizabeth I. Following Marlowe's death, major achievements in English blank verse were made by William Shakespeare, who wrote much of the content of his plays in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Shakespeare's style of blank verse is particularly notable for its metrical looseness, as many of the later plays are written in a semi-free style that, while often imitated, has been rarely equaled. Several decades after Shakespeare, Milton wrote his epic Paradise Lost in unrhymed pentameter, further improving on the form. After Milton, blank verse went out of fashion; for a century and a half the favored verse form in English was that of rhyming couplets. Romantic English poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats revived blank verse as a major form. Following shortly after the Romantics, Alfred Lord Tennyson became particularly devoted to blank verse, using it, for example, in his long narrative poem ,"The Princess," as well as for one of his most famous poems—"Ulysses." Among American poets, Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are notable for using blank verse in extended compositions at a time when many other poets were turning to free verse.

History of English Blank Verse

The earliest blank verse consisted of end-stopped and regular lines. In these early examples of blank verse the meter was never varied, resulting in monotonous poems that suffer from a rigid, almost metronomic quality. Marlowe and Shakespeare were the first poets to develop the dramatic potential of blank verse in the late sixteenth century. Marlowe was the first to exploit a looser style of blank verse to create poems of convincing emotional power, as in this excerpt:

You stars that reign'd at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist
Into the entrails of yon labouring clouds,
That when they vomit forth into the air,
My limbs may issue from their smoky mouths,
So that my soul may but ascend to Heaven.
(Doctor Faustus)

Shakespeare improved upon Marlowe's innovations by using enjambment. In his last plays Shakespeare was prone to varying the metrical regularity of his lines widely, for example by using feminine endings (in which the last syllable of the line is unstressed, as in lines 3 and 6 of the following example); all of these techniques made his later blank verse extremely rich and varied:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war - to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt;…
(The Tempest, 5.1)

This very free treatment of blank verse was imitated by Shakespeare's contemporaries, and led to general metrical looseness in the hands of less skilled users. However, Shakespearean blank verse was used with some success by John Webster and Thomas Middleton in their plays. Ben Jonson, meanwhile, used a tighter blank verse with less enjambment in his great comedies Volpone and The Alchemist.

Blank verse was not much used in the non-dramatic poetry of the seventeenth century until Paradise Lost, in which Milton used it with much license and tremendous skill. Milton used the flexibility of blank verse, its capacity to support syntactic complexity, to the utmost, in passages such as these:

… into what Pit thou seest
From what highth fal'n, so much the stronger provd
He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? yet not for those
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage
Can else inflict do I repent or change,
Though chang'd in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur'd merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav'n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
(Paradise Lost, Book 1)

In the century after Milton, there are few distinguished uses of either dramatic or non-dramatic blank verse; in keeping with the desire for regularity, most of the blank verse of this period is somewhat stiff. The best examples of blank verse from this time are probably John Dryden's tragedy All For Love and James Thomson's The Seasons. An example notable as much for its failure with the public as for its subsequent influence on the form is John Dyer's The Fleece.

At the close of the eighteenth century, William Cowper ushered in a renewal of blank verse with his volume of kaleidoscopic meditations, The Task, published in 1784. After Shakespeare and Milton, Cowper was the main influence on the next major poets in blank verse, teenagers when Cowper published his masterpiece. These were the Lake Poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth used the form for many of the Lyrical Ballads (1798 and 1800), and for his longest efforts, The Prelude and The Excursion. Wordsworth's verse recovers some of the freedom of Milton's, but is generally far more regular. It is often tedious and prosaic, but at its best it has a calm resonance that is almost unique to Wordsworth. Coleridge's blank verse is technically dazzling, but he wrote little of it: So-called "conversation poems" such as "Frost at Midnight" are the best known of his blank verse works:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again ! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings : save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.

The blank verse of Keats in his epic poem Hyperion is mainly modeled on that of Milton, but takes fewer liberties with the pentameter and possesses the characteristic beauties of Keats's verse. Shelley's blank verse in The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound is closer to Elizabethan practice than to Milton's.

Of the Victorian writers in blank verse, the most prominent are Tennyson and Robert Browning. Tennyson's blank verse in poems like "Ulysses" and "The Princess" is musical and regular; his lyric "Tears, Idle Tears" is probably the first important example of the blank verse stanzaic poem. Browning's blank verse, in poems like "Fra Lippo Lippi," is more abrupt and conversational.

Blank verse, of varying degrees of regularity, has been used quite frequently throughout the twentieth century in original verse and in translations of narrative verse. Most of Robert Frost's narrative and conversational poems are in blank verse; so are other important poems like Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West" and "The Comedian as the Letter C," W. B. Yeats's "The Second Coming," W. H. Auden's "The Watershed," John Betjeman's Summoned by Bells, and so on. A complete listing is impossible, since a sort of loose blank verse has become a staple of lyric poetry, but it would be safe to say that blank verse is as prominent now as it has been any time in the past three hundred years.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Carper, Thomas and Derek Attridge. Meter and Meaning: An Introduction to Rhythm in Poetry. New York: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0415311748
  • Fenton, James. An Introduction to English Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. ISBN 0374104646
  • Powell, Joseph. Accent on Meter: A Handbook for Readers of Poetry. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2004. ISBN 0814131468


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