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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Heav’nly 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 Heav’ns 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 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 (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 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.
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.
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
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).
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.
1 Ezra Pound, ‘A Retrospect’, thepoetryfoundation.org, 2022.
2 Glossary: Free Verse, poetry.org, 2022.
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.
What are the two main types of verse?
What are the characteristics of free verse?
Free verse has no rhyme scheme and no set meter.
What are the characteristics of blank verse?
Blank verse has no rhyme scheme but is usually iambic pentameter.
Who is a famous free verse poet?
Who wrote the blank verse poem Paradise Lost?
What could be said to be the first language to use free verse in poetry?
Generally it can be said that the French Symbolism poets used this more modern version of the free verse first.
What is iambic pentameter?
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.
What is the difference between prose and verse?
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.
How are prose and verse similar?
There are some similarities between free verse and prose. Neither free verse nor prose is metrical and both try to replicate natural speech patterns
What type of verse does Elizabeth Barret Browning use?
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