"What is Blank Verse?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is Blank Verse? (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for the Spanish Transcript)

By Evan Gottlieb, Oregon State University Professor of British Literature

“Blank verse” is a literary term that refers to poetry written in unrhymed but metered lines, almost always iambic pentameter. “Iambic pentameter” refers to the meter of the poetic line: a line of poetry written this way is composed of five “iambs,” groups of two syllables that fall into an “unstressed-stressed” pattern: famously, like a heartbeat: buh-BUM, buh-BUM.

Traditionally – say, in a Shakespeare sonnet – lines of iambic pentameter are then combined with end-rhymes to create various rhyming patterns. You can hear this very clearly in the famous opening quatrain-- the first four lines -- of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou are more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May;

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date”

Here, the 1st and 3rd lines rhyme at the end, and so do the 2nd and 4th. But in blank verse, there are no end-rhymes: lines of metered verse – usually iambic pentameter -- simply follow one after another without being connected by rhyming words.

Blank verse is not a recent invention: Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare, among others, popularized the use of blank verse in their plays. But the most famous early example of a poem composed in blank verse is without a doubt John Milton’s epic masterpiece, Paradise Lost, which appeared in its twelve-book form in 1674. In a prefatory note to the poem, Milton explains that he has chosen to write Paradise Lost in what he calls “English heroic verse without rhyme” – that is, in unrhymed iambic pentameter.

And Milton says that he’s done so because Homer and Virgil wrote their epics in unrhymed Greek and Latin, respectively. So Milton is very much setting himself up as their successor. Rhyme, he goes on, was “the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter.” Some of Milton’s contemporaries use it pretty well, he admits, but he still finds that they do so because they are “carried away by custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have expressed them.”

In other words, there will be no childish or vulgar rhymes for Milton in Paradise Lost, since that would be beneath his epic ambition and would constrain his ability to tell the story he wants to tell.

The very fact that Milton felt the need to defend his decision suggests, of course, that readers of his day would have expected to read rhyming verse. Milton, instead, ends his prefatory note by telling readers that they should be thankful he has “recover[ed]” the “ancient liberty” that Classical authors enjoyed, and has subsequently rescued English poetry from what he calls, bitingly, “the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming.”

So—what does blank verse allow Milton to do?

First, let’s keep in mind that the most common rhyme of Milton’s day was the couplet, or two-line rhyme. But couplets, while easily memorized, also tend to encourage their authors to keep their thoughts within the rigid demarcations of the rhyme itself. Consider the start of “To His Coy Mistress,” published in 1681 by Milton’s friend, Andrew Marvell: “Had we but world enough and time/ This coyness, lady, were no crime.” Here we have a complete thought, in a tidy couplet of iambic tetrameter.

Now, consider the opening lines of Book One 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 Heav’nly 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 heav’ns and earth

Rose out of Chaos. (1-10)

That’s the first 9 and a half lines of the poem: and the first thing to notice about it is that it’s all one long sentence. And that, in a nutshell, is what blank verse allows Milton to do: form long, complex, periodic sentences. Unconstrained by the need to make his lines rhyme, Milton is free to ignore the ends of lines, instead using plenty of enjambment (that’s when there’s no punctuation at the end of a poetic line, meaning you need to read right through to the next line without pausing) – and this, in turn, allows Milton’s syntax to snake along without any pre-determined ends in sight.

Note that in the opening lines of Paradise Lost I recited, the main subject of the passage – Heavenly Muse – does not even appear until the 6th line!

Although it can be confusing to read Milton, then, it is never boring: because his blank verse forces the reader to work hard to follow what one critic calls “the play of syntax against lineation”: that is, the tension between the often unconventional order of Milton’s words, and the steady meter of the iambic pentameter that nonetheless carries each line along in a stately, elevated flow of pure language, free from the “bondage” of rhyme.

After the success of Paradise Lost, blank verse – now sometimes known as “Miltonic verse” – became more acceptable to poets and readers. But precisely because Milton had used it so imperiously and ambitiously, it was primarily deployed for serious and elevated topics, usually of some length. If you wanted to be taken seriously as a poet, in other words, you had to use blank verse at some point.

And this is exactly what William Wordsworth does in one of the first major poems of his career: “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Waye during a Tour, July 13, 1789” – or just “Tintern Abbey,” as it’s better known – first published in 1798. Here is how that poem begins:

“Five years have passed; five summers, with the length

Of five long winters! and again I hear

These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs

With a sweet inland murmur. – Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

Which on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

This is perhaps a little less complicated than Milton’s opening: we learn the subject of the verse – the first-person narrator “I” – in the second line, and there is a period near the end of the fourth line that creates two sentences out of these opening eight lines.

But again, without the constraint of end-rhymes, Wordsworth is able to form poetic lines that run into each other without stopping, compelling the reader to follow the flow of his memories as he returns after five years to the banks of the Wye river, and begins to contemplate what this pastoral scene has meant to him over the years.

I think it’s no coincidence that Wordsworth ends this opening passage with the observation that the border between land and sky has become blurred, since this is nearly the exact spot in the opening of Paradise Lost, where Milton recalls the biblical creation story of “heaven and earth” being formed out of Chaos. Just as Milton used blank verse to signal the elevation of his Christian narrative to compete with the Classical epics, so Wordsworth attests to the value and seriousness of his own “intellectual” development by putting it in the form of blank verse.

Among modern poets, Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are two of the best-known American practitioners of blank verse, even though by the middle of the twentieth century, many of their contemporaries were turning to free verse, which has neither set rhymes nor a constant meter.

So now you know: if you want to make your mark as a poet, you’ll want to try writing in blank verse at some point! But be aware that readers in the know will inevitably compare your efforts to those of Milton and Wordsworth: good luck!

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