An Introduction to Blank Verse

Listen for the Beat in These Metered Poems

Stained glass window with image of an angel sending Adam and Eve from paradise.
Paradise Lost by John Milton was an early masterpiece of blank verse poetry.

Stained glass at the Cathedral of Brussels in  Belgium. Photo by Jorisvo via Getty Images

Blank verse is poetry with a consistent meter but no formal rhyme scheme. Unlike free verse, blank verse has a measured beat. In English, the beat is usually iambic pentameter, but other metrical patterns can be used. From William Shakespeare to Robert Frost, many of the greatest writers in the English language embraced the blank verse form. 

How to Identify a Blank Verse Poem

The basic building block for a blank verse poem is a two-syllable unit called an iamb.

Like the ba-BUM of a heartbeat, the syllables alternate between short ("unstressed") and long ("stressed"). Most blank verse in English is iambic pentameter: five iambs (ten syllables) per line. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) used iambic pentameter in his classic poem,“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." Notice the rhythm created by the pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables in this selection: 

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs 

However, Wordsworth didn't write the poem entirely in iambics. Poets sometimes slip in different meters like spondees or dactyls to soften the beat and add a sense of surprise. These variations can make a blank verse poem hard to recognize. To add to the challenge, word pronunciations change with local dialects: Not all readers hear exactly the same beat. 

To distinguish blank verse from free verse, begin by reading the poem aloud. Count the syllables in each line and mark the syllables that have a stronger emphasis.

Look for an overall pattern in the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. Blank verse will show some evidence that the poet has measured the lines to achieve a more or less consistent beat throughout the poem.

Origins of Blank Verse

English didn't always sound iambic, and the earliest literature from England didn't use orderly patterns of accented syllables.

Beowulf (ca. 1000) and other works written in Old English relied on alliteration rather than meter for dramatic effect.

Systematic metrical patterns entered the literary scene during the age of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), who wrote in Middle English. Iambic rhythms echo through Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. However, in keeping with the convention of the day, many of the tales are composed of rhyming couplets. Every two lines rhyme. 

The idea of writing metered verse without a formal rhyme scheme didn't emerge until the Renaissance. Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478-1550), Giovanni di Bernardo Rucellai (1475-1525), and other Italian writers began to imitate unrhymed poetry from ancient Greece and Rome. The Italians called their works versi sciolti. The French also wrote unrhymed verse, which they called vers blanc.

Nobleman and poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, pioneered English blank verse in the 1550s when he translated the second and fourth books of Virgil's The Aeneid from Latin. A few years later, Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville produced The Tragedie of Gorboduc (1561), a play composed of very little rhyme and strong iambic pentameter:

Such causeless wrong and so unjust despite,
          May have redress, or at the least revenge.

Meter was an important tool for dramatizing memorable stories during a time when most people couldn't read. But there was a tedious sameness to the iambic beat in The Tragedie of Gorboduc and other early blank verse. Playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) energized the form by using dialog, enjambment, and other rhetorical devices. His play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus combined colloquial speech with lyrical language, rich assonance, alliteration, and references to Classical literature. Published in 1604, the play contains Marlowe's often-quoted lines:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips sucks forth my soul, see where it flies!

Marlowe's contemporary William Shakespeare (1564-1616) developed a range of techniques to disguise the tick-tock rhythm of iambic pentameter.

In his famous soliloquy from Hamlet, some lines contain eleven syllables instead of ten. Many lines end with a softer ("feminine") unstressed syllable. Colons, question marks, and other sentence endings create rhythmical pauses (known as caesura) midway through lines. Try to identify the stressed syllables in these lines from Hamlet's soliloquy:

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,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep...

The Rise of Blank Verse Poetry

During the age of Shakespeare and Marlowe, English blank verse belonged mainly to the realm of the theater. Shakespeare's sonnets followed conventional rhyme schemes. In the mid-1600s, however, John Milton (1608–1674) rejected rhyme as "but the invention of a barbarous age" and promoted the use of blank verse for nondramatic works. His epic poem Paradise Lost contains 10,000 lines in iambic pentameter. To preserve the rhythm, Milton shortened words, eliminating syllables. Notice the abbreviation of "wandering" in his description of Adam and Eve leaving paradise:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way. 

Blank verse fell from favor after Milton died, but in the late 1700s a new generation of poets explored ways to integrate natural speech with musicality. Blank verse offered more possibilities than verse with formal rhyme schemes.

Poets could write stanzas in any length, some long, some short. Poets could follow the flow of ideas and use no stanza breaks at all. Flexible and adaptable, blank verse became the standard for poetry written in the English language.

Other masterpieces of blank verse poetry include "Frost at Midnight" (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,"Hyperion" (1820) by John Keats, and "The Second Coming(1919) by W.B. Yeats.

Modern Examples of Blank Verse

Modernism brought revolutionary approaches to writing. Most 20th century poets turned to free verse. Formalists who still wrote in blank verse experimented with new rhythms, fragmented lines, enjambment, and colloquial vocabulary. 

Home Burial” by Robert Frost (1874-1963) is a narrative with dialog, interruptions, and outcries. Although most of the lines are iambic, Frost shattered the meter midway through the poem. The indented words "Don't, don't, don't, don't" are equally stressed.

There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound—’

                             ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.

She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs...

Robert Graves (1895-1985) used similar strategies for Welsh IncidentThe whimsical poem is a dialog between two speakers. With casual language and ragged lines, the poem resembles free verse. Yet the lines lilt with iambic meter: 

‘But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.’
‘What were they? Mermaids? dragons? ghosts?’
‘Nothing at all of any things like that.’
‘What were they, then?’
‘All sorts of queer things...

Blank Verse and Hip-Hop

Rap music by hip-hop artists draws from African folk songs, jazz, and blues. The lyrics are filled with rhyme and near-rhyme. There are no set rules for line lengths or metrical patterns. In contrast, blank verse emerged from European literary traditions. While the meter can vary, there's an overall regularity to the beat. Moreover, blank verse poems rarely use end rhymes. 

Nevertheless, blank verse and rap music share the same iambic rhythms. The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Group performs rap versions of Shakespeare plays. Hip-hop musician Jay-Z celebrates the poetic qualities of rap music in his memoir and lyric collection, Decoded (view on Amazon). 

Compare the line by Wordsworth quoted at the top of this page with this line from Jay-Z's rap song, "Coming of Age":

see his hunger pains, I know his blood boils

Rap music is not written exclusively in blank verse, but teachers often include hip-hop in the curriculum to illustrate the continued relevance of Shakespeare and other writers from the blank verse tradition. 

Blank Verse Key Terms

  • Blank verse: Poetry that has a consistent meter but no formal rhyme scheme.
  • Meter: The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem.
  • Free verse: Poetry that does not have a rhyme scheme or a consistent metrical pattern.

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