A Beginner's Guide to Prosody:
Part III (Blank Verse)
by Tina Blue
November 22, 2000
~Review of relevant terms from Parts I and II of this series of articles on prosody, plus a few more needed for this article:
METER--a rhythmic pattern in poetry in which stresses (accented syllables) recur at regular intervals. The word "meter" comes from the Greek word for "measure."
FOOT--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.
IAMB (IAMBIC FOOT)--a metrical foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (x /).
PENTAMETER--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 / .
DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE--a poem in which a single (fictional) speaker addresses an implied audience at a critical moment in an ongoing series of events.
FREE VERSE--(vers libre, open form poetry); poetry with no identifiable metrical pattern or rhyme scheme. (To read an article about free verse, use the link.)
STANZA--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.
Blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, is one of the best known and most widely used metrical patterns in English poetry, probably because it is so close to the natural rhythms of English speech and so easy to adapt to different levels of language.
Blank verse was introduced into English verse by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who along with his older friend Sir Thomas Wyatt also introduced the sonnet and other Italian poetic forms into English poetry in the sixteenth century. Surrey used blank verse (which his publisher called "this strange meter") in his translation of the fourth and second books of Virgil's Aeneid (1554, 1557). Blank verse must not, however, be confused with English free verse, which lacks both a rhyme scheme and an identifiable metrical pattern, whereas blank verse has a very specific metrical pattern.
The structure of blank verse differs from that of rhymed verse, which tends to break into stanzas. Poems written in blank verse are often divided into "verse paragraphs" of varying lengths, as distinct from stanzas, which usually have regular lengths and are defined by their rhyme scheme and metrical pattern.
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 iambic pentameter. 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.
One might ask why a poet would bother to write in blank verse, when it sounds so much like everyday speech. The fact is that blank verse, despite that similarity, is not quite a "normal" speech rhythm. True, English speech follows a rough iambic pentametrical pattern, but it frequently varies that pattern as well, and also interrupts it with pauses and widely varied inflections. Put simply, the rhythm of blank verse is far more formal, more intensely regular, than the looser rhythmic pattern of normal speech.
The formality of such regular meter creates an incantatory effect, and like all strong rhythms it tends to capture and modify the listener's heartbeat and to induce a slightly altered state of consciousness. Formal language patterns also establish a sort of "frame" around experience, thus marking the experience of the poem as separate and somehow distinguished from mundane reality. Just as the darkened auditorium at a concert creates a state of psychological receptiveness in the audience, so too does the insistent regularity of blank verse prepare the listener for a heightened response to the effects of language and image in the poem.
Soon after Surrey introduced blank verse, it became the standard meter for Elizabethan and Jacobean poetic drama. Probably it was first used in drama in Gorboduc (1561), by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine and The Tragical History of Dr, Faustus (c. 1588-93) are written in blank verse, but his lines are predominantly end-stopped (i.e., the sense of the lines coincides with the ends of the lines), and thus they lack the suppleness and variation that we find in William Shakespeare's use of blank verse. Shakespeare is the most notable practitioner of blank verse as a dramatic form, and his plays are, in fact, written predominantly, though not entirely, in blank verse. Even in the twentieth century T. S. Eliot and Maxwell Anderson used blank verse as a vehicle for staged drama, though by that time their efforts were self-consciously anachronistic.
Blank verse has also been a favored form for reflective and narrative poems. The stately, majestic cadences of John Milton's religious epic Paradise Lost demonstrate the extraordinary incantatory power of that pattern maintained over long stretches of poetry. Take, for example, the single long sentence that constitutes the first sixteen lines of the "Invocation" to Book I of Paradise Lost.
Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the Heavens and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
Milton himself likened blank verse to the unrhymed verse of "Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin" and called it "English heroic verse without rhyme." He considered rhyme "no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter . . ." Milton defended his choice of blank verse for his epic as no defect, "though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar readers," but rather an "[esteemed] example set, the first in English, of an ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome modern bondage of rhyming" (John Milton, "The Verse," preface to
During the late seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth century, blank verse, though still used, was less popular, primarily because the most prominent poets of that period favored the heroic couplet.
In the nineteenth century, blank verse was frequently used by both the Romantic and the Victorian poets. William Wordsworth's autobiographical epic "The Prelude" was written in blank verse, as was Samuel Taylor Coleridge's meditative "Frost at Midnight." The declamatory, rhetorical rhythms of Milton's blank verse were replaced in Romantic poetry by a more personal and colloquial manner.
Robert Browning used blank verse in many of his dramatic monologues (e.g., "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Andrea del Sarto," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church"), as did Alfred, Lord Tennyson ("Ulysses," "Tithonus"). Although neither poet can be credited with technical innovations in the form, their use of it is highly skilled and flexible, employing both colloquial rhythms and a more declamatory style, as the occasion warrants.
Around the time of World War I, during the "modernist" period, long poems in blank verse fell out of fashion, but blank verse continued to be used by some twentieth-century poets. It was especially favored by Robert Frost ("Birches," "Mending Wall," "Out, Out--"). Frost often said that his aim in much of his poetry was to capture the "sound of sense," that rhythmic pattern we notice in spoken language even when we are unable to make out the words being spoken. His poems written in blank verse demonstrate how conversational blank verse can sound while still retaining the formal effects of good poetry. Here are the first eleven lines of his well-known poem "Mending Wall":
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;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
Browning, too, writing many decades earlier, during the Victorian period, used blank verse to capture the sound of normal speech, but without its banality. In the opening lines of "Andrea del Sarto," the painter addresses his young wife in language that one might almost expect to overhear in a restaurant:
But do not let us quarrel anymore,
No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once:
Sit down and all shall happen as you wish.
You turn your face, but does it bring your heart?
Yet carried over the 267 lines of this dramatic monologue, the poem's superficially colloquial rhythms produce an effect that normal speech could never produce. We are transported to another world, as it were, and mere reality fades, just as it does in a darkened theater. Skillfully handled, blank verse is not likely ever to be mistaken for prose, despite the erroneous belief of what Milton would call "vulgar readers" that unrhymed lines do not deserve the name of poetry.
NOTE: This is the third article in a series intended to introduce the basic concepts of prosody to readers with no specialized background in the techniques of analyzing poetry. The first article in this series is "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part I" and the second is "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part II (Meter)." The last is "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part IV (Anglo-Saxon Accentual Meter)."