What is Blank Verse ?
Blank verse is unrhyming verse written in iambic pentameter lines. This means that the rhythm is skewed toward a pattern in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one (iambic), and that each normal line has ten syllables, five of which are stressed (pentameter). It has been described as “probably the most prevalent and influential form of English poetry since the sixteenth century,” with Paul Fussell asserting that “about three-quarters of all English poetry is in blank verse.”
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey used blank verse for the first time in the English language in his translation of the Aeneid. He may have been inspired by the Latin original, as classical Latin verse (as well as Greek verse) lacked rhyme, or by the Italian verse form of Versi Sciolti, which also lacked rhyme. Arden of Faversham by an unknown author (circa 1590) is a notable example of an end-stopped blank verse.
Christopher Marlowe was the first English author to fully exploit the potential of blank verse, establishing it as the dominant verse form in English drama during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. William Shakespeare, who wrote much of the content of his plays in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and Milton, whose Paradise Lost is written in blank verse, made the major contributions to English blank verse. Milton’s blank verse style was widely emulated in the eighteenth century by poets such as James Thomson (in The Seasons) and William Cowper (in The Task). English Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats made extensive use of blank verse. Shortly afterwards, Alfred, Lord Tennyson developed a particular fondness for blank verse, employing it in both his lengthy narrative poem “The Princess” and one of his most famous works, “Ulysses.” Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are noteworthy among American poets for their use of blank verse in extended compositions at a time when many other poets were turning to free verse.
Blank Verse is any verse composed entirely of unrhymed lines all written in the same metre, which is typically iambic pentameter. It originated in Italy and gained popularity during the Renaissance due to its resemblance to classical, unrhymed poetry. Marlowe’s “mighty line” established blank verse as the standard for many English writers, including Shakespeare and Milton, and it remained a widely practised form until the twentieth century when Modernism rebelled and openly experimented with the tradition. Regardless, Yeats, Pound, Frost, and Stevens embraced blank verse and skillfully carried the tradition into the twentieth century. While not as popular as open form, it continues to play an important role in the world of poetry.
Blank verse can be written in any metre and with any number of feet per line (and thus any line length), though the iamb is typically the dominant foot. Along with the iamb, there are three additional standard feet and several variants that can be used in a blank verse poem. It is nearly impossible to write a blank verse poem entirely composed of iambs, and other types of feet are used more frequently than one might believe. These include the following:
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”.
1. Headless Iamb or Tailless Trochee- one stressed syllable. Labelling 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.
Any of the above feet can be used to write blank verse. The name of a poem’s metre is determined by the name of the dominant foot and the number of feet in the line. The iamb, for example, is the dominant foot in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” and there are five feet per line. The poem is thus written in iambic pentameter. However, not every foot is an iamb, and Frost alternates the feet, as seen 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.
The natural rhythm of the words when we read them is not de-dum, de-dum, de-dum—it is not strictly iambic. For example, the first line scans as a trochee and four iambs. By the way, scansion is how poets demonstrate the metre of a poem by using accents to show the stressed syllables. Scanning allows one to determine whether or not a poem is metered and, if so, what type of metre is present, as in “Mending Wall:”
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”.
Of course, how a person scans a single line or an entire poem is determined by 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. The first iamb in “Mending Wall,” for example, could be read as a trochee, with the emphasis on “there” rather than “is.”