Free verse

Free verse

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Free verse is a form of 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...

 that refrains from consistent meter
Meter (poetry)
In poetry, metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study of metres and forms of versification is known as prosody...

 patterns, rhyme
Rhyme
A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds in two or more words and is most often used in poetry and songs. The word "rhyme" may also refer to a short poem, such as a rhyming couplet or other brief rhyming poem such as nursery rhymes.-Etymology:...

, or any other musical pattern.

Poets have explained that free verse, despite its freedom, is not free. Free Verse displays some elements of form. Most free verse, for example, self-evidently continues to observe a convention of the poetic line
Line (poetry)
A line is a unit of language into which a poem or play is divided, which operates on principles which are distinct from and not necessarily coincident with grammatical structures, such as the sentence or clauses in sentences...

 in some sense, at least in written representations, thus retaining a potential degree of linkage, however nebulous, with more traditional forms. Donald Hall
Donald Hall
Donald Hall is an American poet. He was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 2006.-Personal life:...

 goes as far as to say that "the form of free verse is as binding and as liberating as the form of a rondeau
Rondeau (poetry)
This article is about the poetry form. For other uses, see Rondeau.A rondeau is a form of French poetry with 15 lines written on two rhymes, as well as a corresponding musical form developed to set this characteristic verse structure...

," and T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns "T. S." Eliot OM was a playwright, literary critic, and arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. Although he was born an American he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39.The poem that made his...

 wrote, "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."

Some poets have considered free verse restrictive in its own way. In 1922 Robert Bridges
Robert Bridges
Robert Seymour Bridges, OM, was a British poet, and poet laureate from 1913 to 1930.-Personal and professional life:...

 voiced his reservations in the essay 'Humdrum and Harum-Scarum
Humdrum and Harum-Scarum
"Humdrum and Harum-Scarum: A Lecture on Free Verse" is an essay by the poet Robert Bridges, first published in November 1922 in both the North American Review and the London Mercury. In it Bridges explains what he regards as the 'adverse conditions' that free verse imposes upon a poet:# loss 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...

 later remarked that writing free verse was like "playing tennis without a net."

Precursors


As the name vers libre suggests, this technique of using more irregular cadences is often said to be derived from the practices of 19th-century French poets such as Gustave Kahn
Gustave Kahn
Gustave Kahn was a French Symbolist poet and art critic.Kahn was born in Metz.He claimed to have invented the term vers libre, or free verse; he was in any case one of the first European exponents of the form. His principal publications include Les Palais nomades, 1887, Domaine de fée, 1895, and...

 and Jules Laforgue
Jules Laforgue
Jules Laforgue was an innovative Franco-Uruguayan poet, often referred to as a Symbolist poet. Critics and commentators have also pointed to Impressionism as a direct influence and his poetry has been called "part-symbolist, part-impressionist".-Life:...

 in his Derniers vers of 1890. However, in English the sort of cadencing that we now recognize as a variety of free verse can be traced back at least as far as the King James Bible. By referring to Psalms it is possible to argue that free verse in English first appeared in the 1380s in the John Wycliffe
John Wycliffe
John Wycliffe was an English Scholastic philosopher, theologian, lay preacher, translator, reformer and university teacher who was known as an early dissident in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century. His followers were known as Lollards, a somewhat rebellious movement, which preached...

 translation of the Psalms
Psalms
The Book of Psalms , commonly referred to simply as Psalms, is a book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible...

 and was repeated in different form in most biblical translations ever since. Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman
Walter "Walt" Whitman was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse...

, who based his verse approach on the Bible, was the major precursor for modern poets writing free verse, though they may have been reluctant to acknowledge his influence.

One form of free verse was written by Christopher Smart
Christopher Smart
Christopher Smart , also known as "Kit Smart", "Kitty Smart", and "Jack Smart", was an English poet. He was a major contributor to two popular magazines and a friend to influential cultural icons like Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding. Smart, a high church Anglican, was widely known throughout...

 in a long poem called Jubilate Agno
Jubilate Agno
Jubilate Agno is a religious poem by Christopher Smart, and was written between 1759 and 1763, during Smart's confinement for insanity in St. Luke's Hospital, Bethnal Green, London. The poem was first published in 1939, under the title Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song from Bedlam, edited by W. F...

, written sometime between 1759 and 1763 but not published until 1939.
Many poets of the Victorian era experimented with form. Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti
Christina Georgina Rossetti was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children's poems...

, Coventry Patmore
Coventry Patmore
Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore was an English poet and critic best known for The Angel in the House, his narrative poem about an ideal happy marriage.-Youth:...

, and T. E. Brown all wrote examples of unpatterned rhymed verse. Matthew Arnold
Matthew Arnold
Matthew Arnold was a British poet and cultural critic who worked as an inspector of schools. He was the son of Thomas Arnold, the famed headmaster of Rugby School, and brother to both Tom Arnold, literary professor, and William Delafield Arnold, novelist and colonial administrator...

's poem Philomela contains some rhyme but is very free. Poems such as W. E. Henley's 'Discharged' (from his In Hospital sequence), and Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist and travel writer. His best-known books include Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde....

's poems 'The Light-Keeper' and 'The Cruel Mistress' can be counted early examples of free verse.

In France, a few pieces in Arthur Rimbaud
Arthur Rimbaud
Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud was a French poet. Born in Charleville, Ardennes, he produced his best known works while still in his late teens—Victor Hugo described him at the time as "an infant Shakespeare"—and he gave up creative writing altogether before the age of 21. As part of the decadent...

's prose poem collection Illuminations
Illuminations (poems)
Illuminations is an uncompleted suite of prose poems by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, first published partially in La Vogue, a Paris literary review, in May–June 1886. The texts were reprinted in book form in October 1886 by Les publications de La Vogue under the title Les Illuminations proposed...

 were arranged in manuscript in lines, rather than prose.

In the Netherlands, tachtiger (i.e. member of 1880s generation of innovative poets) Frederik van Eeden
Frederik van Eeden
Frederik Willem van Eeden was a late 19th century and early 20th century Dutch writer and psychiatrist...

 employed the form at least once (in his poem Waterlelie ["water lily"]).

Goethe (particularly in some early poems, such as Prometheus
Prometheus (Goethe)
Prometheus is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which the character of the mythic Prometheus addresses God in misotheist accusation and defiance. The poem was written between 1772 and 1774 and first published in 1789 after an anonymous and unauthorised publication in 1785 by Friedrich...

) and Hölderlin used it occasionally, due in part to a misinterpretation of the meter used in Pindar
Pindar
Pindar , was an Ancient Greek lyric poet. Of the canonical nine lyric poets of ancient Greece, his work is the best preserved. Quintilian described him as "by far the greatest of the nine lyric poets, in virtue of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and figures, the rich...

's poetry; in Hölderlin's case, he also continued to write unmetered poems after discovering this error.

The German poet Heinrich Heine
Heinrich Heine
Christian Johann Heinrich Heine was one of the most significant German poets of the 19th century. He was also a journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is best known outside Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of Lieder by composers such as Robert Schumann...

 made an important contribution to the development of free verse with 22 poems, written in two-poem cycles called 'Die Nordsee' (The North Sea) (written 1825-1826). These were first published in 'Buch der Lieder' (Book of Songs) in 1827.

Free verse in English was persuasively advocated by critic T. E. Hulme
T. E. Hulme
Thomas Ernest Hulme was an English critic and poet who, through his writings on art, literature and politics, had a notable influence upon modernism.-Early life:...

 in his A Lecture on Modern Poetry
A Lecture on Modern Poetry
A Lecture on Modern Poetry was a paper by T. E. Hulme which was read to the Poets' Club around the end of 1908. It is a concise statement of Hulme's influential advocacy of free verse. The lecture was not published during Hulme's lifetime....

(1908).

Form and Structure


Although free verse requires no meter, rhyme, or other traditional poetic techniques, a poet can still use them to create some sense of structure. A clear example of this can be found in Walt Whitman's
Walt Whitman
Walter "Walt" Whitman was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse...

poems, where he repeats certain phrases and uses commas to create both a rhythm and structure.

Because of a lack of predetermined form, free verse poems have the potential to take truly unique shapes. The poet is given more license to express and, unrestrained by traditional bounds, has more control over the development of the poem. This could allow for a more spontaneous and essentially individualizing factor.