Blank verse

Blank verse

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Blank verse is poetry
Poetry
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...

 written in unrhymed iambic pentameter
Iambic pentameter
Iambic pentameter is a commonly used metrical line in traditional verse and verse drama. The term describes the particular rhythm that the words establish in that line. That rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables; these small groups of syllables are called "feet"...

. It has been described as "probably the most common and influential form that English poetry has taken since the sixteenth century" and Paul Fussell
Paul Fussell
Paul Fussell is an American cultural and literary historian, author and university professor. His writings cover a variety of genres, from scholarly works on eighteenth-century English literature to commentary on America’s class system...

 has claimed that "about three-quarters of all English poetry is in blank verse."

The first documented use of blank verse in the English language was by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Henry Howard, KG, , known as The Earl of Surrey although he never was a peer, was an English aristocrat, and one of the founders of English Renaissance poetry.-Life:...

 in his translation of the Æneid (c. 1554). He was possibly inspired by the Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 original, as classical Latin verse (as well as Greek verse) did not use rhyme; or he may have been inspired by the Italian
Italian language
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...

 verse form of Versi Sciolti , which also contained no rhyme.
The play Arden of Faversham
Arden of Faversham
Arden of Faversham is an Elizabethan play, entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on 3 April 1592, and printed later that same year by Edward White. It depicts the murder of one Thomas Arden by his wife Alice Arden and her lover, and their subsequent discovery and punishment...

 (circa 1590 by an unknown author) is a notable example of end-stopped
End-stopping
An end-stopped line is a feature in poetry in which the syntactic unit corresponds in length to the line. Its opposite is enjambment, where the sense runs on into the next line. According to A. C...

 blank verse.

Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. As the foremost Elizabethan tragedian, next to William Shakespeare, he is known for his blank verse, his overreaching protagonists, and his mysterious death.A warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest on 18 May...

 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
Drama
Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance. The term comes from a Greek word meaning "action" , which is derived from "to do","to act" . The enactment of drama in theatre, performed by actors on a stage before an audience, presupposes collaborative modes of production and a...

 in the age of Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I of England
Elizabeth I was queen regnant of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death. Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty...

 and James I
James I of England
James VI and I was King of Scots as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England and Ireland as James I from the union of the English and Scottish crowns on 24 March 1603...

. The major achievements in English blank verse were made by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

, who wrote much of the content of his plays in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and Milton
John Milton
John Milton was an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell...

, whose Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost is an epic poem in blank verse by the 17th-century English poet John Milton. It was originally published in 1667 in ten books, with a total of over ten thousand individual lines of verse...

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
William Cowper
William Cowper was an English poet and hymnodist. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. In many ways, he was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry...

 (in The Task). Romantic
Romantic poetry
Romanticism, a philosophical, literary, artistic and cultural era which began in the mid/late-1700s as a reaction against the prevailing Enlightenment ideals of the day , also influenced poetry...

 English poets such as William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth was a major English Romantic poet who, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped to launch the Romantic Age in English literature with the 1798 joint publication Lyrical Ballads....

, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron...

, and John Keats
John Keats
John Keats was an English Romantic poet. Along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, he was one of the key figures in the second generation of the Romantic movement, despite the fact that his work had been in publication for only four years before his death.Although his poems were not...

 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
Ulysses (poem)
"Ulysses" is a poem in blank verse by the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson , written in 1833 and published in 1842 in Tennyson's well-received second volume of poetry. An oft-quoted poem, it is popularly used to illustrate the dramatic monologue form...

". Among American poets, Hart Crane
Hart Crane
-Career:Throughout the early 1920s, small but well-respected literary magazines published some of Crane’s lyrics, gaining him, among the avant-garde, a respect that White Buildings , his first volume, ratified and strengthened...

 and Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens was an American Modernist poet. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, educated at Harvard and then New York Law School, and spent most of his life working as a lawyer for the Hartford insurance company in Connecticut.His best-known poems include "Anecdote of the Jar",...

 are notable for using blank verse in extended compositions at a time when many other poets were turning to free verse
Free verse
Free verse is a form of poetry that refrains from consistent meter patterns, rhyme, or any other musical pattern.Poets have explained that free verse, despite its freedom, is not free. Free Verse displays some elements of form...

.

History of English blank verse


Gorboduc
Gorboduc (play)
Gorboduc, also titled Ferrex and Porrex, is an English play from 1561. It was performed before Queen Elizabeth I on 18 January 1562, by the Gentlemen of the Inner Temple...

(1561), the first blank-verse tragedy, illustrates how monotonous such verse could be. http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/gorboduc.html 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.
Enough.


Shakespeare also used enjambment
Enjambment
Enjambment or enjambement is the breaking of a syntactic unit by the end of a line or between two verses. It is to be contrasted with end-stopping, where each linguistic unit corresponds with a single line, and caesura, in which the linguistic unit ends mid-line...

 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
The Tempest
The Tempest is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1610–11, and thought by many critics to be the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone. It is set on a remote island, where Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place,...

, 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
John Webster
John Webster was an English Jacobean dramatist best known for his tragedies The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, which are often regarded as masterpieces of the early 17th-century English stage. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare.- Biography :Webster's life is obscure, and the dates...

 and Thomas Middleton
Thomas Middleton
Thomas Middleton was an English Jacobean playwright and poet. Middleton stands with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson as among the most successful and prolific of playwrights who wrote their best plays during the Jacobean period. He was one of the few Renaissance dramatists to achieve equal success in...

 in their plays. Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson
Benjamin Jonson was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays, particularly Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, which are considered his best, and his lyric poems...

, meanwhile, used a tighter blank verse with less enjambment in his great comedies Volpone
Volpone
Volpone is a comedy by Ben Jonson first produced in 1606, drawing on elements of city comedy, black comedy and beast fable...

 and The Alchemist
The Alchemist (play)
The Alchemist is a comedy by English playwright Ben Jonson. First performed in 1610 by the King's Men, it is generally considered Jonson's best and most characteristic comedy; Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that it had one of the three most perfect plots in literature...

.

Blank verse was not much used in the non-dramatic poetry of the 17th century until Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost is an epic poem in blank verse by the 17th-century English poet John Milton. It was originally published in 1667 in ten books, with a total of over ten thousand individual lines of verse...

, 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:


Milton also wrote Paradise Regained
Paradise Regained
Paradise Regained is a poem by the English poet John Milton, published in 1671. It is connected by name to his earlier and more famous epic poem Paradise Lost, with which it shares similar theological themes...

and parts of Samson Agonistes
Samson Agonistes
Samson Agonistes is a tragic closet drama by John Milton. It appeared with the publication of Milton's Paradise Regain'd in 1671, as the title page of that volume states: "Paradise Regained / A Poem / In IV Books / To Which Is Added / 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
John Dryden
John Dryden was an influential English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles as the Age of Dryden.Walter Scott called him "Glorious John." He was made Poet...

'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
William Cowper
William Cowper was an English poet and hymnodist. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. In many ways, he was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry...

 ushered in a renewal of blank verse with his volume of kaleidoscopic meditations, "The Task
The Task (poem)
The Task: A Poem, in Six Books is a poem in 6000 lines of blank verse by William Cowper, usually seen as his supreme achievement. Its six books are called "The Sofa", "The Timepiece", "The Garden", "The Winter Evening", "The Winter Morning Walk" and "The Winter Walk at Noon"...

", 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
Lake Poets
The Lake Poets are a group of English poets who all lived in the Lake District of England at the turn of the nineteenth century. As a group, they followed no single "school" of thought or literary practice then known, although their works were uniformly disparaged by the Edinburgh Review...

 William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth was a major English Romantic poet who, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped to launch the Romantic Age in English literature with the 1798 joint publication Lyrical Ballads....

 and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, Romantic, literary critic and philosopher who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets. He is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla...

. Wordsworth used the form for many of the Lyrical Ballads
Lyrical Ballads
Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems is a collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published in 1798 and generally considered to have marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature...

(1798 and 1800), and for his longest efforts, The Prelude
The Prelude
The Prelude; or, Growth of a Poet's Mind is an autobiographical, "philosophical" poem in blank verse by the English poet William Wordsworth. Wordsworth wrote the first version of the poem when he was 28, and worked over the rest of it for his long life without publishing it...

and The Excursion
The Excursion
The Excursion: Being a portion of The Recluse, a poem is a long poem by Romantic poet William Wordsworth and was first published in 1814 . It was intended to be the second part of The Recluse, an unfinished larger work that was also meant to include The Prelude, Wordsworth's other long poem, which...

. Wordsworth's verse recovers some of the freedom of Milton's, but is generally far more regular. Coleridge's blank verse is more technical than Wordsworth's, but he wrote little of it; his so-called "conversation Poems" such as "The Aeolian Harp" and "Frost at Midnight
Frost at Midnight
Frost at Midnight was a poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in February 1798. Part of the conversation poems, the poem discusses Coleridge's childhood experience in a negative manner and emphasizes the need to be raised in the countryside...

" are the best known of his blank verse works. The blank verse of Keats
John Keats
John Keats was an English Romantic poet. Along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, he was one of the key figures in the second generation of the Romantic movement, despite the fact that his work had been in publication for only four years before his death.Although his poems were not...

 in Hyperion
Hyperion (poem)
"Hyperion" is an abandoned epic poem by 19th-century English Romantic poet John Keats. It is based on the Titanomachia, and tells of the despair of the Titans after their fall to the Olympians...

is mainly modelled on that of Milton, but takes fewer liberties with the pentameter and possesses the characteristic beauties of Keats's verse. Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron...

's blank verse in The Cenci
The Cenci
The Cenci, A Tragedy, in Five Acts is a verse drama in five acts by Percy Bysshe Shelley written in the summer of 1819, and inspired by a real Italian family, the Cencis . Shelley composed the play at Rome and at Villa Valsovano near Livorno, from May to August 5, 1819...

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
Robert Browning
Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright whose mastery of dramatic verse, especially dramatic monologues, made him one of the foremost Victorian poets.-Early years:...

. 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
Gilbert and Sullivan
Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of the librettist W. S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan . The two men collaborated on fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896, of which H.M.S...

's 1884 opera, Princess Ida
Princess Ida
Princess Ida; or, Castle Adamant is a comic opera with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It was their eighth operatic collaboration of fourteen. Princess Ida opened at the Savoy Theatre on January 5, 1884, for a run of 246 performances...

, is based on Tennyson's "The Princess". Gilbert's dialogue is in blank verse throughout (although the other 13 Savoy opera
Savoy opera
The Savoy Operas denote a style of comic opera that developed in Victorian England in the late 19th century, with W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan as the original and most successful practitioners. The name is derived from the Savoy Theatre, which impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte built to house...

s 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
Robert Frost
Robert Lee Frost was an American poet. He is highly regarded for his realistic depictions of rural life and his command of American colloquial speech. His work frequently employed settings from rural life in New England in the early twentieth century, using them to examine complex social and...

's narrative and conversational poems are in blank verse; so are other important poems like Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens was an American Modernist poet. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, educated at Harvard and then New York Law School, and spent most of his life working as a lawyer for the Hartford insurance company in Connecticut.His best-known poems include "Anecdote of the Jar",...

'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
W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden , who published as W. H. Auden, was an Anglo-American poet,The first definition of "Anglo-American" in the OED is: "Of, belonging to, or involving both England and America." See also the definition "English in origin or birth, American by settlement or citizenship" in See also...

's "The Watershed" and John Betjeman's
John Betjeman
Sir John Betjeman, CBE was an English poet, writer and broadcaster who described himself in Who's Who as a "poet and hack".He was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture...

 Summoned by Bells
Summoned by Bells
Summoned by Bells, the blank verse autobiography by John Betjeman, describes his life from his early memories of a middle class home in Edwardian Hampstead, London, to his premature departure from Magdalen College, Oxford....

. MacKinlay Kantor
MacKinlay Kantor
MacKinlay Kantor , born Benjamin McKinlay Kantor, was an American journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He wrote more than 30 novels, several based on the American Civil War, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1956 for his 1955 novel Andersonville, about the Confederate prisoner of war camp...

'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
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Best Years of Our Lives is a 1946 American drama film directed by William Wyler, and starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, and Harold Russell, a United States paratrooper who lost both hands in a military training accident. The film is about three United States...

, 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.

Sources

  • The Department of English. "Blank Verse" in The UVic Writer's Guide. University of Victoria, 1995. http://web.uvic.ca/wguide/Pages/LTBlankVerse.html
  • Deutsch, Babette, Poetry Handbook, fourth edition. 1974.
  • Milton, John, Paradise Lost. Merritt Hughes, ed. New York, 1985.