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Blank Verse

What is blank verse?

Blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which was widely used by Milton and Shakespeare in their poetry is the most popular form of poetry in English, probably because English language naturally falls in an iambic pattern and therefore it sounds very rhythmic and natural. It is also very easy to adapt it to other languages. The natural speech rhythm of the English language is iambic, and the typical length of an utterance is usually about ten syllables, since that is approximately how long most people can speak comfortably without pausing to take a breath. Thus it might well be said that English speech rhythms tend to fall naturally into a predominantly iambic pentametrical pattern. This closeness to the natural rhythms of speech accounts for the particular popularity of blank verse in drama, dramatic monologues, epic poems, narrative poems, and long introspective or meditative poems.

To refresh your memory I will again discuss in brief some concepts we discussed earlier on and which are relevant to the discussion of blank verse.

Revisiting some known terms

A rhythmic pattern in poetry wherein stresses (accented syllables) recur at fixed intervals. The word meter comes from the Greek word for measure.

The basic unit of meter; a group of syllables forming a metrical unit; a unit of (usually) two or three syllables that contains one strong stress. Metrical feet are marked by using symbols to represent stressed (/) and unstressed (x; or a flattened out u shape) syllables.

Iamb (Iambic Foot)
a metrical foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (x /).

A metrical pattern in which the poetic line consists of five iambic feet; thus, a ten-syllable line with the following pattern: x / x / x / x / x / .

Rhyme (Exact Rhyme)
When two or more words or phrases contain an identical vowel sound, usually accented, and the subsequent consonant sounds (if any) are identical: free/see; hit/fit; prize/lies.

A group of lines of verse, usually marked by a rhyme scheme (a regular pattern of end rhymes) and a predominant metrical pattern.

Verse Paragraph
A group of lines of verse (often in blank verse) which forms a unit within a poem; especially common in long narrative poems.

Unrhymed lines of ten syllables each with the even-numbered syllables bearing the accents. Blank verse has been called the most "natural" verse form for dramatic works, since it supposedly is the verse form most close to natural rhythms of English speech, and it has been the primary verse form of English drama and narrative poetry since the mid-Sixteenth Century. Such verse is blank in rhyme only; it usually has a definite meter. (Variations in this meter may appear occasionally). The Earl of Surrey first used the term blank verse in his 1540 translation of The Aeneid of Virgil. As an example, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus' speech to Hippolyta appears in blank verse: Blank verse usually consists of lines of iambic pentameter. Of all the English verse forms, it is the closest to the natural rhythms of English speech. (Most of Shakespeare's plays are in blank verse).

A Deeper Look into the Intricacies of Blank Verse

Blank Verse is any verse comprised of unrhymed lines all in the same meter, usually iambic pentameter. It was developed in Italy and became widely used during the Renaissance because it resembled classical, unrhymed poetry. Marlowe's "mighty line," which demonstrated blank verse's range and flexibility, made blank verse the standard for many English writers, including both Shakespeare and Milton, and it remained a very practiced form up until the twentieth century when Modernism rebelled and openly experimented with the tradition. Regardless, blank verse was embraced by Yeats, Pound, Frost, and Stevens who skillfully brought the tradition through this century. While it may not be as common as open form, it retains an important role in the world of poetry.

Blank verse can be composed in any meter and with any amount of feet per line (any line length), though the iamb is generally the predominant foot. Along with the iamb are 3 other standard feet and a number of variations that can be employed in a blank verse poem. It is difficult--almost impossible--to write a blank verse poem consisting of all iambs, and other types of feet get used more often than one may think. These are:

  1. Iamb- two syllables, unstressed-stressed, as in "today".
  2. Trochee- two syllables, stressed-unstressed, as in "standard".
  3. Anapest- three syllables, unstressed-unstressed-stressed, as in "disengage" 
  4. Dactyl- three syllables, stressed-unstressed-unstressed, as in "probably".

Variations include:

  1. Headless Iamb or Tail-less Trochee ' one stressed syllable. Labeling the foot depends on where it is located in the line.  
  2. Spondee - two stressed syllables, as in "hot dog" 
  3. Amphibrach - three syllables, unstressed-stressed-unstressed, as in "forgetful" 
  4. Double Iamb - four syllables, unstressed-unstressed-stressed-stressed, as in "will you eat it?" A double iamb is counted as two feet.

Blank verse can be written with any combination of the above feet. The name of the dominant foot coupled with the number of feet in the line provide the name of a poem's meter. For example, the dominant foot in Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" is the iamb, and there are five feet per line. Thus, the poem is written in iambic pentameter. Notice, however, that not each foot is an iamb, but Frost mixes up the feet, as in the first few lines of the poem.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun

When you read the words, the natural rhythm is not de-dum, de-dum, de-dum--it is not strictly iambic. The first line, for example, scans as a trochee and four iambs. Scansion, by the way is how poets demonstrate the meter of a poem using accents to show the stressed syllables. With scanning, one can tell if a poem is metered or not and, if so, what kind of meter is present, as in "Mending Wall:"

S'mething there 's that d'esn't l've a w'll.

Of course, how a person scans a single line or an entire poem depends on the reader's natural rhythms and inclinations, and, while there may be better ways to scan a poem, there is not always a single correct scan. In the first line of "Mending Wall", for instance, the first iamb could be read as a trochee, with the stress falling on "there" instead of "is." 

A Peed into the History of Blank Verse

Blank Verse, so called due to the absolute he absence of the rhyme which the ear expects at the end of successive lines, is the unrhymed measure of iambic decasyllable in five beats which is usually adopted in English epic and dramatic poetry.

The history of the blank verse can be traced back a long long way. Many classical poets like Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer have beautiful blank verses to their credit.

The decasyllabic line occurs for the first time in a Provencal poem of the forth 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 in 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 (15i5) 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 meter 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 Trissinos life, however, his invention had been introduced into another literature, where it was destined to enjoy a longer and more glorious existence. Towards the 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 meter. Surreys blank verse is stiff and timid, permitting itself no divergence from the exact iambic movement:

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 1385 it had come into almost universal use for theatrical purposes. In Lyly's The Woman in the Moon and Peeles 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!

But Shakespeare, after having returned to rhyme in his earliest dramas, particularly in The Two Gentletnen 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 fullness. He released it from the excessive bondage that it had hitherto endured; as 1~obert 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 vigor.

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 endeavored 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. 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 license, 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.

Smitha Chakravarthula


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