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Free Verse

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English Literature

Free verse is a type of poetry. It is associated with structural freedom – formal rules of poetic structure do not apply here. The only rule is that there are no rules!

What is a free verse poem?

A free verse poem is a poem with verses that are irregular in length and rhyme – if they rhyme at all. This type of poetry can be considered a reflection of everyday speech patterns, which may sometimes rhyme. A rhyming metric is not intentionally added to the poem, yet if it happens to rhyme then that is acceptable. Free verse poetry is a type of organic poetry.

How to analyse free verse poetry

As with all types of poetry, try to grasp what the poem is saying as a whole. When analysing poems, one thing to consider is the tone of the poem – does it sound like there is a narrator? Is there a reason the poem does or does not have stanzas? What does the presence or lack of stanzas say about the poem?

Examples of free verse poetry

Come slowly, Eden

Lips unused to thee.

Bashful, sip thy jasmines,

As the fainting bee,

Reaching late his flower,

Round her chamber hums,

Counts his nectars—alights,

And is lost in balms!

Analysis of 'Come Slowly, Eden'

Dickenson is famous for free verse poetry. ‘Come Slowly, Eden’ has no consistent rhyme scheme and no consistent metric pattern. As is typical of free verse poetry, this poem follows the rhythms of natural speech. The poem has two stanzas, with the second and fourth verses rhyming. The ‘Eden’ Dickenson speaks of is likely to be the biblical 'Garden of Eden'.

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor–

Bare.

But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now–

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Analysis of 'Mother to Son'

Hughes’ poem has a narrative tone. The direct address to the reader with ‘son’ (verse 1) and ‘you’ occurs a few times in the poem. The poem doesn’t have any stanzas. Since it is a poem without breaks, this may be intended to reflect the analogy of the stairs being used to describe life. It is difficult to get off stairs midway through your journey – you have to keep going to get to the top or bottom. The lines vary in length, with the shortest being ‘Bare’ (verse 7) and this emphasises the lack of ‘cushioning’ (no carpet), the lack of support we can experience in life.

Free verse poem structure

Free verse poetry does not have any structure. That is why it is called free verse. For this reason, it also does not follow rules about line-length, and there do not have to be a set number of lines. A line in a free verse poem can be one word long, or it can be many words long. Free verse poems can have stanzas, but there are no rules. The choice the writer's.

The effect of free verse

Free verse poetry is that it allows for greater freedom in expression. Since there is no restriction in rhyme or metric pattern, you can use the tools of sounds, words and rhythm however you wish, depending on what you want to convey.

Walt Whitman and free verse poetry

Walt Whitman is considered one of the pioneers of free verse poetry. He was an American poet (1819-1892) whose influence on free verse was the promotion of a spontaneous rhythm with instances of repetition, such as those found in the Old Testament. Whitman's works were controversial at the time. One of his most controversial works is the collection Leaves of Grass (1855), which he reworked throughout his life until his death. Leaves of Grass was considered explicitly sensual at the time of publication. This collection of poems explores Whitman's philosophy of life, humanity, the intricacies of nature and one's role in it. The thematic focus is on the material world and the human body, and there is no rhyming or regular line length in the poems.

Here is a short excerpt of one of the poems from the collection, 'Song of Myself':

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

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

air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their

parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

Analysis of 'Song of Myself'

This is the most famous poems in the collection. It details the concept of the individual and the idea of connection between individuals. Any regularity in line length, in rhythm, and pace are features that are not evident regularly throughout the poem. Consider the tone of the poem – it sounds like the running thoughts of a person considering his position as an individual, then in relation to others and then in relation to nature. Whitman chose a subject matter, he allowed his thoughts to run free on that subject matter, forming a story of sorts.

Free Verse - Key takeaways

    • A free verse poem is a poem with verses that are irregular in length and rhyme – if they rhyme at all.

    • The effect of free verse poetry is that it allows for greater freedom in expression. Since there is no restriction in rhyme or metric pattern, you can use the tools of sounds, words and rhythm how they wish, depending on what you want to convey.

    • Since there is no restriction in rhyme or metric pattern, you can use the tools of sounds, words and rhythm how they wish, depending on what you want to convey.

    • Rhyme in free verse poems could be a reflection of speech pattern

Free Verse

  • Pick a subject matter.

  • Write down everything you want to express about your chosen subject.

  • Think about the story you want to tell about your chosen subject and write a few lines. Remember, it doesn’t have to rhyme, it doesn’t have to have a regular structure.

  • Read the poem aloud to help you see how it sounds. 

  • Review your poem. Think about whether the words you’ve chosen fit what you want to say. 

A free verse poem is a poem with verses that are irregular in length and rhyme – if they rhyme at all. 

There is no set number of lines that must be in a free verse poem. 

Emily Dickenson’s ‘Come Slowly, Eden’ (1912) is an example of free verse poetry.


Langston Hughes' 'Mother to Son' (1922) is an example of free verse poetry.

Free verse poems can have stanzas, but there is no rule that they must. 

Final Free Verse Quiz

Question

How do you write a free verse?

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Answer

  • Pick a subject matter.

  • Write down everything you wish to express about your chosen subject.

  • Think about the story you want to tell about your chosen subject and write a few lines. Remember, it doesn’t have to rhyme, it doesn’t have to have a regular structure.

  • Read the poem aloud to help you see how it sounds concerning what you want to be expressed about your subject matter. 

  • Review your poem. Think about if the words you’ve chosen fit what you want to express. 

Show question

Question

What does free verse mean?

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Answer

A free verse poem is a poem with verses that are irregular in length and rhyme- if they rhyme at all.

Show question

Question

How many lines are in a free verse poem?

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Answer

There is no set number of lines that must be in a free verse poem. 

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Question

What is a free verse example?


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Answer

Emily Dickenson’s ‘Come Slowly, Eden’ (1912) is an example of free verse poetry.


Langston Hughes' 'Mother to Son' (1922) is an example of free verse poetry.

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Question

Do free verse poems have stanzas?


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Answer

Free verse poems can have stanzas, but there is no rule that they must.

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Question

What type of poetry is free verse?


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Answer

Free verse poetry is a type of organic poetry. 

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Question

How does the free verse structure of Dickenson’s ‘Come Slowly, Eden’ (1919) add to the poem’s meaning?


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Answer

It works well with the expression and meaning of the poem, as the love described in the poem is wild, new, titillating. 

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Question

How does the free verse structure of Hughes’ ‘Mother to Son’ (1922) add to the poem’s meaning?


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Answer

It is a poem without breaks, and this could reflect the analogy of the stairs being used to describe life- it is difficult to get off stairs midway through, you have to keep going to get to where you wish.

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Question

What is the effect of free verse poetry?


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Answer

The effect of free verse poetry is that it allows for greater freedom in expression. 

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Question

What does a rhyme in free verse poetry often reflect?


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Answer

A rhyme in free verse can often reflect the natural rhyme of speech patterns.

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