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Verse

In poetry, verse generally refers to a single line of a poem or a stanza but can also be used to refer to a poem or even poetry in general. In other genres, such as music, verse can refer to the non-chorus, lyrical sections of a song or a collection of bars in rap.

This seemingly simple word often has a pretty specific meaning that is context-dependent, so it is worth understanding the different takes.

Verse meaning

Even as far as poetry definitions are concerned, verse can take on a few meanings, depending on how and when it is used.

For example, the mass noun definition of verse refers to structured works usually written in a meter, more specifically, certain types of poems. In academia, it can also be used to describe a type of meter used, such as a hexameter verse. As a regular noun, it refers to one metrical line of a poem that is countable. Verse can also be used to describe what would normally be called a stanza, although this is a more casual definition.

When used as an adjective, verse describes a work that is poetic in form, such as a verse play.

There are two different types of verse in poetry, free and blank verse. They are grouped under types of verse but, in practice, are very different in approach.

Blank verse

Early forms of blank verse existed in Latin and Greek heroic verse. These structures were then adapted by Italian poets like Giovanni Rucellai, who was the first to use the term versi sciolti. This Italian term was translated into ‘blank verse’ when the structure spread to the English-speaking world.

Meter

Blank verse is most commonly written in unrhymed iambic pentameter.

An ‘iamb’ is a foot that is made up of an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable. Penta is the Greek word for five. Put together, an iambic pentameter is a line with five iambs and ten syllables that sounds like this: duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh- DUH, duh- DUH, duh-DUH.

Usually, blank verse is used in poetry, but Shakespeare used it in his plays, too. These could be described as verse plays.

Examples of blank verse

The first example of blank verse in an English language poem is probably by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who translated Virgil’s Aeneid (29-19 BC) in the mid-sixteenth century. Following this, William Shakespeare made extensive use of blank verse with iambic pentameter in both his poetry and his plays.

John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) is considered to be the first widely-read example of a modern English language blank verse poem. He closely followed the structure of the works of Homer and Virgil.

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast

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 Heavnly Muse, that on the secret top

Of Oreb, or Sinai, didst inspire

That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,

In the Beginning how the Heavns and Earth. (Milton, lines 1-9).

Often linked to epic poems of the Victorian era, blank verse was used extensively by poets like Elizabeth Barret Browning in long poems that are almost novels, like Aurora Leigh (1857).

Can you find any rhyming words? How many syllables can you count per line in this stanza? What does this tell you about the verse used?

Of writing many books there is no end;

And I who have written much in prose and verse

For others’ uses, will write now for mine,–

Will write my story for my better self,

As when you paint your portrait for a friend,

Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it

Long after he has ceased to love you, just

To hold together what he was and is (Barret Browning, lines 1-8).

Widely used by many poets now considered classics of the Western Canon, blank verse can also be spotted in famous poems from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850) to Robert Frost’s Mending Wall (1914). Take a look at this more modern excerpt from Mending Wall and find the similarities to the previous poems written in blank verse.

Something there is that doesnt 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 (Frost, lines 1-4).

Although blank verse was originally intended to sound close to the cadence of ordinary speech, it is now sometimes considered old fashioned due to the length of its lines and the formality of its structure.

Free verse

Free verse is a direct translation of vers libre. Antecedents exist as far back as the biblical Song of Songs, which was loosely based on the original Hebrew cadences.

Meter

Technically, free verse has no meter. It doesn’t rhyme and has no set structure, so it is considered non-metrical. Free verse tries to mimic the patterns of everyday speech and is considered more informal and flexible than blank verse. You may find that some poems that use free verse have their unique rhythms, but these are not set but are organic and improvised.

Examples of free verse

The French term vers libre was first widely used by poets like Gustave Kahn and Jules Laforge in the 1880s. Although the French Symbolists preceded these poets and also made use of a form of free verse, it is generally accepted that this was the start of free verse’s mainstream uptake.

During the late 19th century, the Symbolists were a movement that created work with irrational, emotional, and symbolic dreamlike elements. They influenced the Surrealists.

By 1918, free verse had been translated from vers libre and had spread globally. The poet and critic Ezra Pound wrote this about free verse in In Retrospect (1918). He compares it to a musical phrase rather than a mechanical or predictable metronome.

As regarding rhythm, [ the structure of free verse is] to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome.1

Verse, A mechanical metronome, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A mechanical metronome.

Consider the difference between the rhythm of a metronome and how a song might sound, then take a look at the first verse of his poem The Return (1917). This is an early example of American free verse.

See, they return; ah, see the tentative

Movements, and the slow feet,

The trouble in the pace and the uncertain

Wavering! (Pound, lines 1-4).

Do you think Ezra Pound was comparing blank verse to a mechanical metronome? Do you agree?

Later poets like Jorge Louis Borges expanded upon these original thoughts on free verse:

Beyond its rhythm, the typographical appearance of free verse informs the reader that what lies in store for him is not informa­tion or reasoning but emotion.2

Perhaps the most famous and influential English language free verse pioneer was Walt Whitman. His poems inspired movements from Surrealism to the Beat Generation and poets from Pablo Neruda to Allen Ginsberg and Patricia Lockwood.

This verse from his poem O Captain! My Captain! (1865) shows how free verse can take on a graphical form.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead (Whitman, lines 1-8).

Due to its flexibility and less formal nature, most contemporary poets have used free verse since the mid-20th century. There are many different examples to read from a variety of cultures and movements. A currently well-known British free verse poet is Carol Ann Duffy, who mixes free verse with a selection of meters to create different rhythms and tones in her work.

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.

It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.

It promises light

like the careful undressing of love (Duffy, lines 1-5).

Can you see how much shorter lines in the free verse are? And how irregular the length is compared to a blank verse poem? Do you think that free verse is closer to everyday speech?

Verse versus prose

Typically, verse is different from prose because verse is normally arranged in lines that make up a stanza, which then makes up a poem. In contrast, prose is composed of sentences that make up a paragraph, which then makes up a novel, for example. Authors write prose, while poets create verses. Generally, verse relies more on rhythm than prose, but this is not always the case. At a very simplistic level, the difference is that prose is for novels, and verse is for poetry.

There are more similarities between free verse and prose than between prose and blank verse. Neither free verse nor prose is strictly metrical, and both seek to represent natural speech patterns.

Verse - Key takeaways

  • Verse can have a variety of meanings, depending on the context. Generally, it means a line of a poem, a stanza within a poem, or even poetry in general.
  • There are two main types of verse: blank verse and free verse.
  • Blank verse is based on Greek and Latin heroic verse and is not used as frequently in contemporary poetry.
  • Free verse was made popular by 19th-century French poets but can be traced back to biblical cadences.
  • Prose and verse differ in many ways, but free verse and prose are similar in that they have no set rhyme scheme or meter.

1 Ezra Pound, A Retrospect, thepoetryfoundation.org, 2022.

2 Glossary: Free Verse, poetry.org, 2022.


References

  1. Fig. 1 - A mechanical metronome (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metronome_Nikko.jpg) by Vincent Quach (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Invincible) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Verse

In poetry, verse generally refers to a single line of a poem or a stanza but can also be used to refer to a poem or even poetry in general.


You will find that the exact meaning depends on the context.

Blank verse is usually a type of poetic structure that is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Free verse is a type of poetic structure that has no set meter and doesn’t rhyme.


Free verse tries to mimic the patterns of everyday speech and is considered more informal and flexible than blank verse.

A poem written in free verse has no rhyme scheme and no set meter.

A verse could be a free verse or a blank verse. 


A famous blank verse example is Miltons’ Paradise Lost (1667). A very well-known and more contemporary example of free verse can be seen in Walt Witman’s poems.

Final Verse Quiz

Question

What are the two main types of verse?

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Answer

Free verse

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Question

What are the characteristics of free verse?

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Answer

Free verse has no rhyme scheme and no set meter.

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Question

What are the characteristics of blank verse?

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Answer

Blank verse has no rhyme scheme but is usually iambic pentameter.

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Question

Who is a famous free verse poet?

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Answer

Walt Whitman

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Question

Who wrote the blank verse poem Paradise Lost?

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Answer

John Milton

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Question

What could be said to be the first language to use free verse in poetry?

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Answer

Generally it can be said that the French Symbolism poets used this more modern version of the free verse first.

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Question

What is iambic pentameter?

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Answer

Iambic pentameter is meter used in poetry. Each line in an imabic pentameter poem will have 5 iambs and 10 syllables. It sounds like this: duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh- DUH, duh- DUH, duh-DUH.

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Question

What is the difference between prose and verse?

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Answer

Generally verse differs from prose in that is composed in lines that make up a stanza, that then make up a poem. 


Prose is made up of sentences that make a paragraph which makes up a novel, for example. 


Authors write prose, while poets create verses.

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Question

How are prose and verse similar?

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Answer


There are some similarities between free verse and prose. Neither free verse nor prose is metrical and both try to replicate natural speech patterns

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Question

What type of verse does Elizabeth Barret Browning use?

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Answer

Blank verse

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