Definition of Blank Verse
Blank verse is a type of poetry written in a regular meter that does not contain rhyme. Blank verse is most commonly found in the form of iambic pentameter. Many famous English writers have used blank verse in their works, such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, and William Wordsworth.
Difference Between Blank Verse and Free Verse
Though blank verse and free verse sound like similar concepts, there are some notable differences. The definition of blank verse stipulates that, while there is no rhyme, the meter must be regular. Free verse, on the other hand, has no rhyme scheme and no pattern of meter. Free verse generally mimics natural speech, while blank verse still carries a musical quality due to its meter.
Common Examples of Blank Verse
While blank verse really only applies to poetry, there are examples of blank verse in other art forms, such as in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1884 opera Princess Ida. Here is an excerpt from a dialogue spoken by Princess Ida that is written in iambic pentameter without rhyme:
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.
Significance of Blank Verse in Literature
There is a strong tradition of using blank verse in English poetry; indeed, the literary historian Dr. Paul Fussell, Jr. has estimated that the majority of English poetry has been written in blank verse. Blank verse became popular in the 16th century when Christopher Marlowe and then William Shakespeare began incorporating it into their works. If you read Shakespeare’s plays carefully, you will soon begin to notice that much of the dialogue is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, i.e., in blank verse. The famous work Paradise Lost by John Milton is also written in blank verse. Blank verse was also popular with Romantic English poets, as well as some contemporary American poets.
Blank verse allows an author to not be constricted by rhyme, which is limited in English. Yet it still creates a more poetic sound and sense of pattern due to the regular use of stressed and unstressed syllables. Meter is generally easier to use in English than rhyme since the majority of words are short (one or two syllables), unlike in Romance languages. Thus, it was in favor with English poets for nearly half a millennium. Free verse has replaced blank verse in popularity in the most recently written poetry, however.
Examples of Blank Verse in Literature
HAMLET: To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
This is perhaps the most famous monologue in all of William Shakespeare’s works, and it is an example of blank verse. You will notice, however, that not all lines have exactly ten syllables, as is usually the case with iambic pentameter. At times, Shakespeare chose to write lines with eleven syllables, yet the stress is still on the tenth syllable. This is called using “feminine endings.” For example, in the first line, “To BE or NOT to BE—that IS the QUESTion,” we see five iambs (two beats with the stress on the second beat) concluded with the feminine unstressed ending. Shakespeare was notably creative with his use of blank verse, and this format does indeed count as blank verse.
MEPHASTOPHILIS: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.
(Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe)
Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, was one of the most prominent early users of blank verse. He employs blank verse throughout his famous play Doctor Faustus, as we can see in this excerpt. In this exchange, the devil Mephastophilis is trying to convince Faustus not to sell his soul. Note that some words must be shortened in blank verse to fit the meter, such as the word “heaven” in line 3 and “being” in line 5. These two words count as just one syllable to have the correct meter.
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…
(Paradise Lost by John Milton)
This blank verse example is the opening to John Milton’s masterpiece Paradise Lost. As in Example #2, some words are shortened so as to fit the meter of iambic pentameter, such as “Disobedience” (four syllables rather than five) and “Heav’ns” (one syllable rather than two).
The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
(“The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens)
This poem by Wallace Stevens is one of many examples of blank verse from the twentieth century. While some poets were turning to free verse, poets such as Stevens used blank verse to create a more timeless quality to their lines. This stanza in particular has perfect iambic pentameter, as we can see in each line: “The SEA was NOT a MASK. No MORE was SHE.” Stevens actually does use some rhyme here, which is abnormal for blank verse, yet it is the only stanza which has so many end rhymes, and there is no regular rhyme scheme.
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them…
(“Birches” by Robert Frost)
Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” is one of the blank verse examples in his repertoire. He alternated between rhyme and absence of rhyme in his poetry. In this case, Frost creates a poetic melody through the use of meter alone, specifically iambic pentameter. We can see measure this is any of the lines, such as in the first: “When I see BIRCHes BEND to LEFT and RIGHT.”
Test Your Knowledge of Blank Verse
1. How is the blank verse definition different from the definition of free verse?
A. There is no difference; they are the same concept.
B. Blank verse has meter and no rhyme, while free verse has neither meter nor rhyme.
C. Blank verse has no meter or rhyme, while free verse has strict meter and rhyme.
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2. Which of the following famous lines from William Shakespeare is an example of blank verse?
GLOUCESTER: Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
LADY MACBETH: Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.
BEATRICE: Princes and counties! Surely, a princely testimony,
a goodly count, Count Comfect; a sweet gallant,
surely! O that I were a man for his sake! or that I
had any friend would be a man for my sake! But
manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into
compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and
trim ones too: he is now as valiant as Hercules
that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a
man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.
(Much Ado About Nothing)
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3. Choose the true statement:
A. Blank verse has been popular for many millennia.
B. Blank verse is the only way in which contemporary poets write their poems.
C. Blank verse was William Shakespeare’s preferred form in which to write his plays.
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