Blank verse is a commonly misunderstood form of poetry, with writers and readers often failing to correctly identify it in place of rhythmic free verse, or other forms of poetry, with abnormal rhyming schemes, which still rely on iambic pentameter as a syllable and rhythm structure.

Despite its incredible stranglehold on English Literature, including dramatic works, poetry and more, it isn’t commonly used today, having begun to die off in the twentieth century in favour of either rhyming verse or free verse. Usually, iambic pentameter is associated with epic poetry, theatrical works, or certain traditional poems, including Paradise Lost by John Milton and Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798 by Wordsworth.

It is worth noting here that, due to the nature of popular English poetry over the last five hundred years, that many of the poets I’ll mention below are rich white men. While working class, female and minority poets have written incredible works of art, written blank verse has typically been the refuge of the male and the white.

There are exceptions to this, of course, such as Elizabeth Barret Browning, and B.W. Vilakazi in the twentieth century. As time goes on, hopefully, more and more incredible poems will be composed in the blank verse writing style. I also think it is worth saying that the above is a general statement – of course, people of colour and women have written in the blank form; however, they haven’t typically reached the same readership or cultural status as an example by their white, male counterparts.

What Is Blank Verse Poetry?

Blank verse is a form of poetry written in iambic pentameter, but without the use of rhyme. As such, it is often mistaken for free verse, which also does not rely on rhyme, but can still be written in rhythmic patterns.

The term “blank verse” was first coined by John Dryden, who intended it to mean “verse that is not rhymed.” In the twenty-first and twentieth century, blank has negative connotations to mean boring, or simple, which doesn’t do the traditional blank verse poem any favours.

What Is Iambic Pentameter?

Iambic pentameter is a poetic meter consisting of five consecutive iambs. Iambs are two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed. This unstressed, stressed rhythm is almost always iambic pentameter in English Literature. An example of an iambic pentameter line would be Shakespeare’s famous first line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

In that line, the iambic stress would be places as follows: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Iambic pentameter is one of the cornerstones of English poetic history and is one of the core forms and standards used when writing poetry. You can find examples of iambic structure in millions of poems, with each line in Paradise Lost, or most of Shakespeare’s plays.

Is Blank Verse the Same as Iambic Pentameter?

No, the two are not the same. Blank verse is a form of poetry which only uses iambic pentameter as a rhythmic structure. Iambic pentameter can be used in a variety of poetic forms, including sonnets.

Where Did Blank Verse Come From?

While there is some disagreement over the exact source of blank verse, the first instance of blank verse being used in the English language with any kind of prominence was in the 1540s. Henry Howard, The Earl of Surrey, used blank verse in his English translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid.

It is likely that this was inspired by an Italian translation of The Aeneid by Franceso Maria Molza, in 1539. In Italian, this form was known as versi sciolti or “freed verse”. As with many other forms of English poetry, blank verse developed as an English take on an Italian form.

Blank verse is, essentially, an Anglicised version of versi sciolti, in the sense that it was altered to fit the rhythms of English speech, over the more traditional Italian structure.

Is Blank Verse A Form or Structure?

Blank verse itself is a form, which relies on the Iambic Pentameter structure. The form is un-rhymed, but the reader or speaker is propelled forwards through the regular use of iambic pentameter.

Why Is Blank Verse Called Blank Verse?

The term “blank verse” is a little misleading, as the verse isn’t always blank. However, the term originates from the fact that, before rhyme was added to poetry, this was one of the only ways in which verses could be written without it sounding like prose. The term is thought to have originated in the late 16th century, following its conversion into the English language from the Italian “Freed Verse“.

Is Blank Verse Dramatic?

Yes, it can be! Shakespeare wrote some of his most dramatic lines in blank verse (although often supported by internal rhymes). Blank verse’s structure often gives a sense that it has a rhyme scheme, but this is due to the rhythmic structure. William Shakespeare utilised iambs without a rhyme scheme to create incredible examples of blank verse.

If you look at some of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable lines, such as Hamlet’s To Be Or Not To Be:

“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”

Or, one of my personal favourite examples of blank verse, from Julius Caesar:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.”

It isn’t just the words themselves which make these lines so dramatic and effecting – nor is it the context within which they find themselves. The blank verse structure is incredibly pleasing to the ear, and the pattern propels us through the speech, and onto the next line, as though it did rhyme.

While I, personally, have my own troubles with the Shakespeare-worship that occupies much of the modern theatrical world and English classrooms across the country, there is no denying that he was an incredible and intelligent writer who used blank verse to great effect.

Why Is Blank Verse Considered Traditional?

Blank verse has been around in the English language for around 500 years. It was also one of Shakespeare’s favoured forms. As we all learn some Shakespeare in school, it is only natural that we look at it as a traditional, archaic form of poetry.

This is exacerbated when we compare it to the liberty and freedom found in a Vers Libre “Free Verse” poem. Iambic pentameter has dominated English for so long, that it is often seen as the traditional standard for the poetic form. As such, blank verse, the poetic form which relies entirely upon iambic pentameter, has obtained the same lofty reputation.

Is Blank Verse Prose?

No, blank verse is not prose. Blank verse is a poetic form which relies on iambic pentameter as a structure. Iambic pentameter itself isn’t a poetic form, but rather a structure, relying on five iambs. Iambic pentameter is often used in conjunction with other poetic forms, but when used alone it typically results in blank verse.

What’s The Difference Between A Blank Verse Poem & A Heroic Couplet?

The main difference between blank verse and a heroic couplet is the rhyming structure. One of the most common mistakes made with regards to blank verse is confusing it with a heroic couplet. A heroic couplet is a form of poetry consisting of two consecutive lines of iambic pentameter, which typically rhyme on the last syllable.

A blank poem, on the other hand, does not rely on a rhyme scheme, although it does use on iambic pentameter.

What’s The Difference Between Blank Verse & Iambic Pentameter?

Blank verse is a poetic form which relies on unrhymed iambic pentameter as a structure. Iambic pentameter itself isn’t a poetic form, but rather a structure, relying on five iambs with unstressed and stressed syllables. Iambic pentameter is often used in conjunction with other poetic forms, including sonnets, ballads and more.

Why Is Blank Verse Important?

Blank verse is important for a few reasons. Some of the accepted greatest works of English literature have been composed in blank verse. It is impossible to hear a poem or study poetry, in English, without coming across an example of this style.

Blank Verse is also an extremely simple style for a poem. As it only relies on unstressed / stressed iambs, it can be a fairly good way to develop your understanding of the rhythm. From there, you can go on the develop a poem with an additional rhyme scheme.

Who Are Some Poets That Write in Blank Verse?

Some of the most well-known poets that wrote lines in blank verse include:

  • Ezra Pound
  • Christopher Marlowe
  • William Shakespeare
  • Wallace Stevens
  • John Milton
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  • T.S. Eliot
  • William Wordsworth
  • Robert Frost
  • And Many Other Examples.

What Are Some Famous Blank Verse Poems?

Some of the most famous blank verse poems in the history of the English language include:

  • Paradise Lost, by John Milton
  • Tintern Abbey, by William Wordsworth
  • Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson
  • The Second Coming, by W.B. Yeats
  • Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

In addition to these famous poems, it would be incredibly remiss of me not to mention William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or other verse drama and poetic works he composed. You can find an example of these poems, even if only a fraction of them, almost anywhere on the internet.

How Do I Read Blank Verse?

The most important thing to remember is the iambic pentameter structure. In some cases, when the iambic pentameter isn’t necessarily clear, you should take the time to look for it. Even if that means spelling out the syllables on your fingers, or deliberately over-stressing the iambs until the rhythm of the poem clicks in your head.

Reading aloud can help with all kinds of poetry, particularly blank verse. Even if you feel a little stupid reading out Wordsworth with overly stressed iambic syllables, it’s worth it to help you really understand the subtleties and rhythm of the poetic structure.

Why Write in Blank Verse?

Despite being one of the oldest and most used poetic forms, blank verse is often neglected in favour of more popular rhyming schemes. This may be due to the misconception that it is somehow easier or simpler than other forms, or that the minor limitations of unrhymed iambic pentameter aren’t as exciting as free verse.

Blank verse is a powerful form of structured poetry, which marries the freedom to write what you want, with the technical skill to adhere to a poem’s formula. Even if you go on to write primarily free verse, understanding how blank verse and iambs work is one of the cornerstones when attempting to structure poetic lines.

If you do decide to write in blank verse, it can make your poems seem more dramatic, improve their pacing and, in many cases, make them easier to memorise or pace when reading out loud.

What Are the Guidelines When Writing A Blank Verse Poem?

There aren’t any real guidelines when it comes to blank verse, beyond the iambic pentameter structure itself. Poetry without any defined structure is free verse, which is a completely different art form.

If you’re looking to write your own blank verse, here are the guidelines you might want to follow:

  • Iambic Pentameter – Iambic pentameter is the main structure of blank verse. This consists of five iambs, resulting in a standard line of ten syllables.
  • Non-Rhyming – Blank verse doesn’t have a standardised rhyming structure. Traditionally, blank verse doesn’t rhyme at all.
  • Structure – Blank verse poems often have, but don’t require, a definitive structure, which is usually determined by the number of lines in the poem. For example, an octet (eight lines) or sestet (six lines).

I hope you’ve found this resource useful, and that it’s answered any burning questions you’ve had about blank verse. Of course, as with any poetic form, some of the most interesting technical work begins when poets begin to break down the structures and regimes which have dominated their work for extensive periods of time.

If you’ve got any questions, don’t hesitate to check out some of our other articles below, or even get in touch!

J.W. Carey
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