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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Blank verse is a type of poetry, distinguished by having a regular meter, but no rhyme. In English, the meter most commonly used with blank verse has been iambic pentameter (as used in Shakespearean plays).

The first known use of blank verse in the English language was by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey in his interpretation of the Æneid (c. 1554). He was possibly inspired by the Latin original, as classical Latin verse (as well as Greek verse) did not use rhyme; or he may have been inspired by the Italian verse form of Versi Sciolti , which also contained no rhyme. The play, Arden of Faversham (circa 1590 by an unknown author) is a notable example of end-stopped blank verse.

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 and James I. The major achievements in English blank verse were made by William Shakespeare, who wrote much of the content of his plays in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and Milton, whose Paradise Lost is written in blank verse. Miltonic blank verse was widely imitated in the 18th century by such poets as James Thomson (in The Seasons) and William Cowper (in The Task). Romantic English poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats used blank verse as a major form. Shortly afterwards, 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

Gorboduc (1561), the first blank-verse tragedy, illustrates how monotonous such verse could be. Marlowe and then Shakespeare developed its potential greatly in the late 16th century. Marlowe was the first to exploit the potential of blank verse for powerful and involved speech:

You stars that reign'd at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist
Into 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 developed this feature, and also the potential of blank verse for abrupt and irregular speech. For example, in this exchange from King John, one blank verse line is broken between two characters:

My lord?
A grave.
He shall not live.
(King John, 3.3)

Shakespeare also used enjambment increasingly often in his verse, and in his last plays was given to using feminine endings (in which the last syllable of the line is unstressed, for instance lines 3 and 6 of the following example); all of this 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 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 17th 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)

Milton also wrote Paradise Regained and parts of Samson Agonistes in blank verse.

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 "The Aeolian Harp" and "Frost at Midnight" are the best known of his blank verse works. The blank verse of Keats in Hyperion is mainly modelled 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. Gilbert and Sullivan's 1884 opera, Princess Ida, is based on Tennyson's "The Princess". Gilbert's dialogue is in blank verse throughout (although the other 13 Savoy operas have prose dialogue). Below is an extract spoken by Princess Ida after singing her entrance aria "Oh, goddess wise".

Women of Adamant, fair neophytes-
Who thirst for such instruction as we give,
Attend, while I unfold a parable.
The elephant is mightier than Man,
Yet Man subdues him. Why? The elephant
Is elephantine everywhere but here (tapping her forehead)
And Man, whose brain is to the elephant's
As Woman's brain to Man's - (that's rule of three),-
Conquers the foolish giant of the woods,
As Woman, in her turn, shall conquer Man.
In Mathematics, Woman leads the way:
The narrow-minded pedant still believes
That two and two make four! Why, we can prove,
We women-household drudges as we are-
That two and two make five-or three-or seven;
Or five-and-twenty, if the case demands!

Blank verse, of varying degrees of regularity, has been used quite frequently throughout the 20th 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" and John Betjeman's Summoned by Bells. MacKinlay Kantor's 1945 novella of the struggles of returning World War II veterans, Glory for Me, which was the basis for the movie The Best Years of Our Lives, was written in blank verse. 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.


  • Deutsch, Babette, Poetry Handbook, fourth edition. 1974.
  • Milton, John, Paradise Lost. Merritt Hughes, ed. New York, 1985.

See also

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

BLANK VERSE, the unrhymed measure of iambic decasyllable in five beats which is usually adopted in English epic and dramatic poetry. The epithet is due to the absence of the rhyme which the ear expects at the end of successive lines. The decasyllabic line occurs for the first time in a Provençal poem of the 10th century, but in the earliest instances preserved it is already constructed with such regularity as to suggest that it was no new invention. It was certainly being used almost simultaneously in the north of France. Chaucer employed it in his Compleynte to Pitie about 1370. In all the literatures of western Europe it became generally used, but always with rhyme. In the beginning of the 16th century, however, certain Italian poets made the experiment of writing decasyllables without rhyme. The tragedy of Sophonisba (1515) of G. G. Trissino (1478-1550) was the earliest work completed in this form; it was followed in 1525 by the didactic poem Le Api (The Bees), of Giovanni Rucellai (1475-1525), who announced his intention of writing "Con verso Etrusco dalle rime sciolto," in consequence of which expression this kind of metre was called versi sciolti or blank verse. In a very short time this form was largely adopted in Italian dramatic poetry, and the comedies of Ariosto, the Aminta of Tasso and the Pastor Fido of Guarini are composed in it. The iambic blank verse of Italy was, however, mainly hendecasyllabic, not decasyllabic, and under French influences the habit of rhyme soon returned.

Before the close of Trissino's life, however, his invention had been introduced into another literature, where it was destined to enjoy a longer and more glorious existence. Towards the IV. 2 a close of the reign of Henry VIII., Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, translated two books of the Aeneid into English rhymeless verse, "drawing" them "into a strange metre." Surrey's blank verse is stiff and timid, permitting itself no divergence from the exact iambic movement: "Who can express the slaughter of that night, Or tell the number of the corpses slain, Or can in tears bewail them worthily?

The ancient famous city falleth down, That many years did hold such seignory." Surrey soon found an imitator in Nicholas Grimoald, and in 1562 blank verse was first applied to English dramatic poetry in the Gorboduc of Sackville and Norton. In 1576, in the Steel Glass of Gascoigne, it was first used for satire, and by the year 1585 it had come into almost universal use for theatrical purposes. In Lyly's The Woman in the Moon and Peele's Arraignment of Paris (both of 1584) we find blank verse struggling with rhymed verse and successfully holding its own. The earliest play written entirely in blank verse is supposed to be The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587) of Thomas Hughes. Marlowe now immediately followed, with the magnificent movement of his Tamburlaine (1589), which was mocked by satirical critics as "the swelling bombast. of bragging blank verse" (Nash) and "the spacious volubility of a drumming decasyllable" (Greene), but which introduced a great new music into English poetry, in such "mighty lines" as "Still climbing after knowledge infinite, And always moving as the restless spheres," Or: "See where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!" Except, however, when he is stirred by a particularly vivid emotion, the blank verse of Marlowe continues to be monotonous and uniform. It still depends too exclusively on a counting of syllables. But Shakespeare, after having returned to rhyme in his earliest dramas, particularly in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, adopted blank verse conclusively about the time that the career of Marlowe was closing, and he carried it to the greatest perfection in variety, suppleness and fulness. He released it from the excessive bondage that it had hitherto endured; as Robert Bridges has said, "Shakespeare, whose early verse may be described as syllabic, gradually came to write a verse dependent on stress." In comparison with that of his predecessors and successors, the blank verse of Shakespeare is essentially regular, and his prosody marks the admirable mean between the stiffness of his dramatic forerunners and the laxity of those who followed him. Most of Shakespeare's lines conform to the normal type of the decasyllable, and the rest are accounted for by familiar and rational rules of variation. The ease and fluidity of his prosody were abused by his successors, particularly by Beaumont and Fletcher, who employed the soft feminine ending to excess; in Massinger dramatic blank verse came too near to prose, and in Heywood and Shirley it was relaxed to the point of losing all nervous vigour.

The later dramatists gradually abandoned that rigorous difference which should always be preserved between the cadence of verse and prose, and the example of Ford, who endeavoured to revive the old severity of blank verse, was not followed. But just as the form was sinking into dramatic desuetude, it took new life in the direction of epic, and found its noblest proficient in the person of John Milton. The most intricate and therefore the most interesting blank verse which has been written is that of Milton in the great poems of his later life. He reduced the elisions, which had been frequent in the Elizabethan poets, to law; he admitted an extraordinary variety in the number of stresses; he deliberately inverted the rhythm in order to produce particular effects; and he multiplied at will the caesurae or breaks in a line. Such verses as "Arraying with reflected purple and gold Shoots invisible virtue even to the deep Universal reproach, far worse to bear Me, me only, just object of his ire" are not mistaken in rhythm, nor to be scanned by forcing them to obey the conventional stress. They are instances, and Paradise Lost is full of such, of Milton's exquisite art in ringing changes upon the metrical type of ten syllables, five stresses and a rising rhythm, so as to make the whole texture of the verse respond to his poetical thought. Writing many years later in Paradise Regained and in Samson Agonistes, Milton retained his system of blank verse in its general characteristics, but he treated it with increased dryness and with a certain harshness of effect. It is certainly in his biblical drama that blank verse has been pushed to its most artificial and technical perfection, and it is there that Milton's theories are to be studied best; yet it must be confessed that learning excludes beauty in some of the very audacious irregularities which he here permits himself in Samson Agonistes. Such lines as "Made arms ridiculous, useless the forgery My griefs not only pain me as a lingering disease - Drunk with idolatry, drunk with wine Justly, yet despair not of his final pardon" are constructed with perfect comprehension of metrical law, yet they differ so much from the normal structure of blank verse that they need to be explained, and to imitate them would be perilous. A persistent weakness in the third foot has ever been the snare of English blank verse, and it is this element of monotony and dulness which Milton is ceaselessly endeavouring to obviate by his wonderful inversions, elisions and breaks.

After the Restoration, and after a brief period of experiment with rhymed plays, the dramatists returned to the use of blank verse, and in the hands of Otway, Lee and Dryden, it recovered much of its magnificence. In the 18th century, Thomson and others made use of a very regular and somewhat monotonous form of blank verse for descriptive and didactic poems, of which the Night Thoughts of Young is, from a metrical point of view, the most interesting. With these poets the form is little open to licence, while inversions and breaks are avoided as much as possible. Since the 18th century, blank verse has been subjected to constant revision in the hands of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, the Brownings and Swinburne, but no radical changes, of a nature unknown to Shakespeare and Milton, have been introduced into it.

See J. A. Symonds, Blank Verse (1895); Walter Thomas, Le Decasyllabe romain et sa fortune en Europe (1904); Robert Bridges, Milton's Prosody (1894); Ed. Guest, A History of English Rhythms (1882); J. Mothere, Les Theories du vers heroique anglais (1886); J. Schipper, Englische 1bletrik (1881-1888). (E. G.)

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Simple English

Blank verse means poetry that does not use rhyme.

Blank verse relies on the meter of the lines in the poem to give structure, and to create the feeling of poetry as compared to prose. An example from William Wordsworth's poem Michael shows the lack of rhyme and the strict meter in blank verse — each line sticks fairly closely to the pattern of ten syllables and five beats:

Upon the forest-side of Grasmere Vale
There dwelt a shepherd, Michael was his name;
An old man, stout of heart, and strong of limb.
His bodily frame had been from youth to age
Of an unusual strength: his mind was keen,
Intense, and frugal, apt for all affairs,
And in his shepherd's calling he was prompt
And watchful more than ordinary men.

Many critics judge blank verse to be better than rhyme for serious subjects, and many poets have used blank verse for their most important works. Shakespeare used rhyme in his early plays, but in his more mature works like Hamlet he preferred blank verse. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost in blank verse, including a note at the beginning of the poem saying that rhyming poetry was used to disguise badly written poems, and Wordsworth used it for The Prelude and The Excursion. John Keats used rhyme in his Endymion, his first try at a major poem; for his second attempt, Hyperion, he switched to blank verse.

Many 20th century poets gave up both rhyme and the strict meter of blank verse to write free verse.

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