Definition of Verse

There are a few definitions of verse which are relevant to literature. Originally, a verse referred to a single line of a poem. It has also come to mean any grouping of words in a poem, for example a stanza or, indeed, an entire poem. When used to refer to a poem, verse can be a bit of a derogatory term, as it signifies a work which is not quite good enough aesthetically to be classified as a poem.

The word verse came from the Latin word versus, which means “a turning.” The original definition of verse developed in Middle English to mean a single line of a psalm, and later broadened to refer to a single line of any poem.

Types of Verse

  • Rhyming, Metered Verse: Many lines of poetry, especially from older poems, contain both rhyme and meter. Rhyme can either occur at the end of lines in close proximity, or in the middle of a line (internal rhyme). Meter is the rhythm of syllables in a line; the most common meter in English is iambic pentameter, which means that there are five iamb units for a total of ten syllables, alternating between unstressed and stressed syllables.
  • Blank Verse: Blank verse is written in strict iambic pentameter, but has no rhyme scheme.
  • Free Verse: Free verse contains no rhyme and no meter.

Common Examples of Verse

While verse is used in a specific way in literature, it of course also refers to groups of lines in songs. Here are some verses from popular songs:

I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright
I’ll get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alright
Cos I don’t care too much for money, and money can’t buy me love

“Can’t Buy Me Love” by The Beatles

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?

“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan

Rhyming lines from authors such as Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss may be considered “verse” rather than poetry, as it is often sillier and not serious enough to be considered poetry. Here are some famous lines from those authors that have crept into common usage:

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.
And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss

My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.

I have a hangnail, and my heart is …
What? What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is ………….. Saturday?
G’bye, I’m going out to play!”

“I Cannot Go to School Today!” by Shel Silverstein

Significance of Verse in Literature

Verse, when used as a term to refer to a single line, is one of the fundamental units of poetry. While prose and drama is broken into other semantic units, for example, paragraphs and monologues, a verse is the basic element of a poem. Literary scholars analyze poems as whole messages, but often direct their commentary towards how the poem works on the level of the verse. That is, scholars look at the way enjambment works in a line, as well as the meter and rhyme scheme, and the content that each lines holds. In many ways, a verse in a poem has more importance than a single sentence in a novel because each line in a poem must carry so much weight to necessitate its inclusion.

Examples of Verse in Literature

Here are some of the most famous verse examples in all of poetry:

Example #1

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)

Of the 154 sonnets that William Shakespeare wrote, the first line of “Sonnet 18” is perhaps the most famous of all the verses. Shakespeare wrote this verse, as he wrote all of his sonnets and, indeed, many of the monologues and dialogues in his plays, in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is the typical one for an Elizabethan sonnet, which is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Thus, this first verse rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, and so on. This opening line is also an example of hypophora, in which Shakespeare asks a question and answers it immediately afterward.

Example #2

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe used many literary devices in his famous poem “The Raven.” There is a strong meter and rhyme scheme in each stanza, and there is internal rhyme in many of the verse examples. The opening line is particularly memorable due to the rhyme for “dreary” and “weary” and the trochaic octameter, which runs throughout the rest of the poem. Poe uses this meter for the first five verses of each stanza, finishing each stanza with a sixth line of trochaic tetrameter.

Example #3

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(“Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas)

Dylan Thomas wrote a very famous poem in the form of a villanelle in which he repeats the rhyming lines “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” While each line is an impressive example of verse in and of itself, Thomas’s use of repetition of rhyme and repetition only adds to their strength.

Example #4

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

(“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman)

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is an exuberant example of free verse, which is to say it contains no rhyme or regular meter. Instead, the poem is full of strong imagery and declarative statements that celebrate the speaker’s being.

Example #5

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

(“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost)

Among Robert Frost’s many memorable poems, the final stanza of “The Road Not Taken” is one of the most famous of all. Though the poem in its entirety is short, Frost uses many techniques to make it seem particularly significant. The rhyme scheme unites each stanza, but moreover the metaphor within the poem increases its importance. The speaker remembers a time in his life when he could have taken a separate path from the one he did indeed take, and how this has “made all the difference.” That final verse example perfectly ties up the poem and makes the reader think about his or her own choices throughout life.

Test Your Knowledge of Verse

1. Which of the following is NOT an accurate verse definition?
A. A line of poetry.
B. A grouping of words in a poem.
C. A very aesthetically impressive poem.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following statements is true about the following verse from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”?

Whose woods these are I think I know.

A. There is internal rhyme in this line.
B. The line is written in iambic tetrameter.
C. This does not qualify as a verse.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following verse examples is written in blank verse?

When I see birches bend to left and right

—“Birches” by Robert Frost

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,

—“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams

—“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. This is the only line of the three that is written in iambic pentameter without any rhyme. B is written in free verse, e.g., without meter or rhyme, and C contains internal rhyme.[/spoiler]