Blank Verse Definition
Blank verse (BLAYnk vurss) is a genre of poetry where the lines have a consistent meter but no rhyme scheme. It is primarily written in iambic pentameter and has been an essential part of Western literature since the 16th century. Blank verse is commonly used in verse plays, such as those of William Shakespeare, long poetic works like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and shorter poems such as those by the Romantic poets.
The term blank verse is a translation of the Italian versi sciolti. The form originated in 16th-century Italy as an adaptation of unrhymed Greek and Latin heroic verse. Writers soon moved beyond translating classical work and began utilizing this new form in their own original poems and verse plays.
The Metrical Criteria for Blank Verse
Blank verse is written within a metrical structure. This means that each line of verse can be divided into certain set patterns of rhythmic units. Each unit (called a foot) consists of a specific number and pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The type of foot and number of times it occurs per line determines the verse’s meter.
The most common meter in blank verse is iambic pentameter. This means that it is composed of five iambs per line. An iamb is a metrical foot that has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. For example, in the famous soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young prince says:
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
This speech, like most scenes in Shakespeare’s plays, is written in blank verse. Not every line has a perfect syllabic count of 10, but that’s not unusual for iambic pentameter. At times, writers add an extra syllable but preserve the emphasis on the tenth syllable—this is called a feminine ending. The lines still maintain a consistent meter and do not rhyme, so they are characterized as blank verse.
Blank verse doesn’t always have to be written in iambic pentameter, but that is its most common metrical pattern. Writers also employ trochees, spondees, anapests, and dactyls in their blank verse, but more rarely. It also often employs enjambment—when the line break occurs somewhere in the middle of a syntactical unit like a clause or sentence—and caesuras, which are a pause in the middle of a line.
Blank and Other Types of Verse
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing
This is an example of formal verse because it employs a consistent metrical structure (iambic pentameter) and an ABA rhyme scheme.
Unlike formal verse, free verse does not follow any set patterns of rhyme and meter. Instead, it creates rhythm primarily through the patterns of natural speech, innovative line breaks, or other poetic tools.
For example, in Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem” For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, the verse play begins with a monologue by the lady in brown:
dark phases of womanhood
of never havin been a girl
without rhythm/ no tune
distraught laughter fallin
over a black girl’s shoulder
it’s funny/ it’s hysterical
the melody-less-ness of her dance
don’t tell nobody don’t tell a soul
she’s dancing on beer cans & shingles
Shange not only uses free verse in this choreopoem (a form that combines poetry with music and performance elements), she also points out the monologue’s lack of structure and uses this “melody-less-ness” as a way of amplifying the difficulties of this character’s life.
As mentioned, blank verse requires a consistent meter, but it doesn’t incorporate any formal rhyme scheme.
John Milton’s Paradise Lost is written entirely in blank verse. In Book Eight (lines 460-464), Milton writes:
Mine eyes he clos’d, but op’n lef the Cell
Of Fancie my internal sight, by which
Abstract as in a transe methought I saw,
Though sleeping, where I lay, and saw the shape
These four lines scan as iambic pentameter, although it’s important to remember that there are some spelling and pronunciation variants between the English of Milton’s time and modern-day English.
Blank verse can be considered a middle ground between the more restrictive constraints of formal verse and the untrammeled freedom of free verse. The consistent meter of blank verse provides a structured rhythm to the poem or verse play, but the lack of rhyme scheme gives the writer greater freedom in diction and syntax.
Eras Known for Blank Verse
Blank verse came of age in the Elizabethan era (16th century), but it casts a long shadow into the Romantic and Victorian eras, as well as 20th century verse.
The first English blank verse play was The Tragedie of Gorboduc, written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville in 1561. Other playwrights of the same era soon adapted the form—most notably Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. The 17th-century poet John Milton embraced blank verse as well, and his work inspired later poets such as Romantics William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Blank verse was also used by 19th- and 20th-century poet luminaries such as W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens.
Examples of Blank Verse in Literature
1. William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”
Wordsworth’s famous poem begins with the following lines:
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
These lines are written in iambic pentameter, as is most of this poem, though Wordsworth occasionally utilizes spondees and dactyls. He also includes a caesura in each line to give the reader a moment to pause and breathe.
2. Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus
In Act V of Marlowe’s play, Dr. Faustus speaks to an infernal spirit that appears to him in the shape of the legendarily beautiful Helen of Troy:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burned the topless towers of Illium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies.
Come Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips
And all is dross that is not Helena.
Like all of Marlowe’s plays, this section is written in iambic pentameter and does not rhyme.
3. William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Yeats’s famous poem, written soon after the end of World War I, begins:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
While most of this poem is written in iambic pentameter, there are some inconsistencies. The poem’s first foot is a trochee (a stressed-unstressed syllabic pattern), which is then followed by iambs. Despite the opening trochee, the poem’s meter is iambic pentameter, as the majority of the poem follows that pattern.
These occasional metrical divergences are often used to emphasize thematic concerns, as well as provide the poet some flexibility with the poem’s musicality. “The Second Coming” is still categorized as a blank verse poem because it consistently uses a set meter despite the occasional variation.
4. Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
Many of Frost’s best-known poems are written in blank verse, including this one, which begins:
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;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
While there are occasional moments in the poem where Frost plays with his meter, the poem primarily maintains a consistent iambic pentameter metrical pattern. He also very occasionally utilizes eye rhyme and near rhyme, but the poem does not follow any rhyme scheme. Despite these divergences, “Mending Wall” is still written in blank verse.
Further Resources on Blank Verse
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote a good overview of the history of blank verse in European literature.
The Complete Guide to Shakespeare produced a short, useful video to introduce viewers to blank verse.
If you are particularly enthusiastic about blank verse, Ohio University Press published Professor Robert. B. Shaw’s study of the form, Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use.