Robert B. Shaw
Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use
Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2007
Blank verse was first used in English poetry in the 1500s, rose to prominence in the plays of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, and was widely utilized thereafter by poets including John Milton, William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Edwin Arlington Robinson, William Butler Yeats, and Robert Frost. Iambic pentameter, the most common meter in English language poetry, may be rhymed (e.g., sonnets) or unrhymed. When unrhymed it is called blank verse.
Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667–74) “made blank verse an institution,” and its imprint on the history and practice of the form was “so deep as to mark off an epoch”: “Milton’s choice of the meter for a long epic poem was regarded by himself and others as revolutionary. . . [T]he absence of rhyme was widely seen as a striking eccentricity.”
Academic poet Miller Williams calls blank verse “the major form in the language,” and Wikipedia quotes Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form as estimating that “about three-quarters of all English poetry is blank verse.” So it is an important form, although according to Shaw “no one would argue that blank verse has been the paramount form in poetry since the modernist era.”
This is the first book-length overview of blank verse since John Addington Symonds’ Blank Verse was published in 1895. Shaw is a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and also writes poetry, including poems in blank verse.
The book consists of five chapters, the first of which is an introduction to the meter and the last of which is called “Writing Blank Verse Today.” The second chapter, “Before the Twentieth Century,” provides historical background, but the last three chapters—including “Blank Verse and Modernism,” and “After Modernism” covering the late 1930s to the present—comprise the bulk of the book.
“Odd as it may seem,” Shaw writes, “the blank verse of the twentieth century and beyond has never been chronicled as that of previous epochs have been.” His objective is to offer an outline of that unwritten history.
Shaw’s thesis is that modernist and post-modernist poetry includes far more blank verse than is generally recognized, though it is practiced with the widest possible license: “The conviction governing this discussion throughout is that blank verse has continued to be a potent medium in the modern period and beyond.”
He therefore rejects as “preposterous” the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics‘ (1993) contention that “the advent of free verse sounded the death-knell of this meter which was once and for long a powerful, flexible, and subtle form, the most prestigious and successful modern rival to the greatest meter of antiquity.”
The Basic Meter
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18
These two lines of scanned iambic pentameter clearly illustrate the basic meter. The only difference is that in blank verse the lines would not rhyme.
Shaw’s book is not about scansion. When scansion is used, sometimes only a line or two in a passage are marked. Nevertheless, scansion is employed frequently in the analysis of select passages or lines of verse. (I should mention that scansion isn’t an exact science, and people frequently disagree about how lines should be scanned.)
Shaw opts for the system which uses an “x” symbol for an unstressed syllable (instead of the curved line I prefer because it is clearer), a “/” for a fully stressed syllable, and a “\” for a lightly stressed syllable.
As seen above, there are 5 feet (10 syllables) in the basic pentameter line.
Each foot is composed of two syllables each, in which an unstressed syllable precedes a stressed syllable. This type of foot is called an iamb.
Blank verse resembles prose in that the final words of the lines do not rhyme. Unlike prose, there is a pronounced pattern of regularly recurring stressed and unstressed syllables.
In traditional blank verse, if you are unsure whether a passage is verse or prose, you can read it aloud in an attempt to detect the rhythmic sound of iambic pentameter.
You can also look for visual clues. One is that lines of print do not extend to fill the entire page. Another is that the first word of every line is capitalized without regard to normal rules of punctuation or capitalization.
Then might we live together as one life,
And reigning with one will in everything
Have power on this dark land to lighten it,
And power on this dead world to make it live.
—Alfred Tennyson, from “The Coming of Arthur” (1870) in Idylls of the King (1859–1885)
These rules of thumb do not necessarily hold for 20th and 21st century blank verse.
Shaw stresses that single lines should be viewed in the context of their interaction with other lines, passages, and the poem as a whole. This larger framework he calls “architectural.”
Variation in Meter
Although iambic pentameter refers to five iambs in a row, poets frequently vary the meter while adhering to the underlying form. Poet Richard Wilbur states:
One thing modern poets do not write, thank heaven, is virtuoso poems of near perfect conformity to basic rhythms, as Byron, Swinburne, and Browning did in their worst moments. By good poets of any age, rhythm is generally varied cleverly and forcefully to abet the expressive purposes of the whole poem.
Thus, iambic pentameter need not consist entirely of iambs, nor have exactly five feet or ten syllables per line.
In this famous line from Hamlet, variations from regular form are seen in the reversal of stress in the fourth foot (according to this reading), and the addition of an extra unstressed syllable (the so-called “feminine ending”) at the end of the line, creating a lengthened 11- rather than 10-syllable line.
As Wilbur’s statement suggests, it is the prevailing view that variation of meter, rather than consistent use of it, is what makes poetry good. If meter is too regular, a poem will almost certainly be considered bad for that reason alone. “Modernism has made us predisposed to value irregularities.” (p. 253)
Academics, including Shaw, fondly hang their hats on metrical substitutions and variations, as well as on syllabic lengthening or shortening of the line, frequently spinning elaborate if dubious theories of the alleged thematic intentions poets have, or the effects they achieve, when they depart from regularity. I can’t imagine that most genuine poets intentionally do the kinds of things speculated about most of the time. It would be virtually impossible to write good poetry that way. Nevertheless, such is the conventional wisdom.
This attitude motivates Shaw’s strenuous dislike of the blank verse of John Masefield, Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967 (the only person to hold the office longer was Alfred Tennyson). Masefield’s poetry is regarded as excessively regular, rhythmically unadventurous, and lacking in notable metrical substitutions, resulting in “abject adherence to the metrical pattern.”
But Shaw quotes an authority (in a footnote) that states: “There is no line so regular (so evenly alternating weak and strong) that it does not show some tension. It is practically impossible to write an English line that will not in some way buck against the meter.” (Second emphasis added.) But the source adds that lines that approximate “complete submission” to the meter are weak lines.
“Loose Blank Verse”
Because of the book’s modern tilt, the subject of “loose blank verse” looms large.
Already by the beginning of the 20th century the question arose: At what point does blank verse become free verse? Discussing the “treacherous border between metrical and free verse,” Shaw quotes J. A. Symonds (1895): “Indeed, so variable is its structure that it is by no means easy to define the minimum of metrical form below which a Blank Verse ceases to be a recognizable line.”
Shaw writes that it is “an interesting game” to arrange modern poets “along a scale of prosodic practice: some have stayed comfortably within bounds while others operate on the fringe of meter. And some have gravitated back and forth.”
From the late 1930s to the present, “many poets have treated iambic pentameter more as a point of departure than as a form consistently sustained.” Or, as poet Miller Williams summarized with seemingly greater skepticism: “The unrhymed looser five-stress line of some contemporary poets is now often referred to as blank verse.” (Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms, 1986)
How loose is too loose? In the early 20th century, the boundary between blank verse and free verse for both readers and poets began to blur.
The major disruptors were Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who, despite their Right-wing political views, were highly antagonistic to traditional verse forms. In their opinion, even three lines of regular blank verse in succession were “too penty.” Their immense influence created a hostile climate for traditional versification. As a consequence, the free verse revolution produced a new orthodoxy in which some apprentice poets advanced their careers without ever learning the rudiments of traditional prosody.
Both men were influential through their poetry. In literary criticism, Pound “had a tendency to make even his more thoughtful positions sound cranky. Eliot’s prose manner, by contrast, was reassuringly academic even when promoting revolutionary views. He sounded not like a street-corner ranter but like a Harvard-educated oracle.”
Writing of Randall Jarrell and others, Shaw discerns “not the continued presence of the ghost of meter, but an almost mechanical pattern of lurches back and forth between a workaday sort of pentameter and whatever weird assault on its contour strikes the poet’s fancy.”
In “The Problem of Form,” poet J. V. Cunningham spoke in 1962 of the exhaustion of modernism:
We have lost the repetitive harmony of the old tradition, and we have not established a new. We have written to vary or violate the old line, for regularity we feel is meaningless and irregularity meaningful. But a generation of poets, acting on the principles and practice of significant variation, have at last nothing to vary from. The last variation is regularity.
Shaw alludes to the bewildering “nebulousness of current standards and definitions,” “the murkiness that afflicts current discussions of versification,” the “lack of agreement on standards,” and a sense of being “trapped in a sort of halfway house. This is blank verse—for a line or two, and then it is not.”
The contemporary writer of blank verse has more stylistic and technical leeway than poets of any earlier period. This is the residual effect of modernism, persisting long after modernist pioneers like Pound and Eliot have receded as poetic models. In the pluralistic arena of contemporary poetry we find no consensus on prosody. Traditionally strict blank verse has enjoyed a resurgence in the hands of some New Formalists, but freer approaches to the meter are common and probably still more numerous.
Abjuring Pound’s command to “break the pentameter,” yet scornful of John Masefield’s regularity, Shaw favors a third approach: to bend the pentameter “quite a lot—even drastically—without breaking” it. Of course, this is just a description of what much recent poetry does.
Plays in Blank Verse
Students in school most often learn about blank verse—”if they learn about it at all”—in connection with Shakespeare. Yet it has long fascinated me how rarely, or, at most, perfunctorily, blank verse (the meter in which Shakespeare wrote most of his plays), or even the fact that Shakespeare’s plays are verse dramas (a theatrical form virtually unknown today apart from stagings of Shakespeare and Marlowe), is mentioned or discussed in connection with his work. If it is true that many Shakespeare fans do not really know such basic facts—and I suspect they don’t—what does it say about our understanding of Shakespearean drama? Shaw cites a book on the subject, George T. Wright’s Shakespeare’s Metrical Art (1988).
Shaw briefly discusses modern blank verse drama, noting that it has produced little of enduring interest. Theatrical blank verse had ceased to be a living medium as early as the mid-1600s, and never evolved after that. This is one reason why Shakespeare remains the dominant model for stage poetry.
As I noted in “I Hate Shakespeare,” playwright George Bernard Shaw was among several famous Shakespeare skeptics; in fact, he coined the term “Bardolatry” to describe excessive reverence for the Bard. (By the way, I deliberately used hyperbole in the title of that article for shock effect. I don’t really hate Shakespeare; I just don’t particularly care for him.)
According to Robert Shaw, George Bernard Shaw railed against (in Bernard Shaw’s words) “the devastating tradition of blank verse” for “giving factitious prestige to the platitudes of dullards.” In his preface to The Admirable Bashville (1901), a short play parodying Shakespearean blank verse, he wrote flippantly:
It may be asked why I have written The Admirable Bashville in blank verse. My answer is that I had but a week to write it in. Blank verse is so childishly easy and expeditious (hence, by the way, Shakespear’s [sic] copious output), that by adopting it I was enabled to do within a week what would have cost me a month in prose.
This is reminiscent of Jewish poet Karl Shapiro’s view that it is perilously easy “to wander on and on” writing blank verse. (Shapiro attended the University of Virginia and later wrote a celebrated anti-white poem, “University,” about it. The opening sentence is, “To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew / Is the curriculum.” The rest is no better.)
There is an interesting aside about Pulitzer Prize-winning Scots-Irish playwright-in-verse Maxwell Anderson, the author of strident Left-wing social commentaries. He is one of the few successful modern playwrights to make extensive use of blank verse, including the plays Mary of Scotland, Elizabeth the Queen, Winterset, and Key Largo.
Although the poetry of Anderson’s plays has been described as “a loose sort of blank verse” (I’ve actually seen it described most often as simply “blank verse”), this is charitable: “Even passages that are less loose than most are only haphazardly observant of the meter.”
Many of his dramas, with their pseudoprofundities excised, had an even wider display as Hollywood films; verse so mushily fashioned was no match for the rewrite men. Anderson’s audience-pleasing scenarios were highly transposable to the medium. It is unlikely that many viewers of films like The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex or Key Largo were aware that they originated as verse plays. The easily dispensable verse never greatly complicated their box office appeal. It is fair to say that the adaptation into films improved them.
A Missing Resonance
Blank verse was initially called “blank” from the French vers blanc, unrhymed verse, the idea being that eliminating rhyme removed one of the essential components of poetic style. Blank verse has been called a halfway house between rhymed metrical verse and free verse, or a “lite” version of formalist poetry.
As a reader, blank verse has never been my preferred form, despite the fact that some of my favorite poems are written in the meter: e.g., John of Gaunt’s “This Scepter’d Isle” speech from Shakespeare’s King Richard II, Alfred Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur” and “Ulysses,” William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (“‘The Second Coming’ is by far the most celebrated of Yeats’s poems in blank verse”), and Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and “Out, Out—”.
Frost’s 1914 collection North of Boston consisted almost entirely of blank verse poems. But note: “Frost in his later years took up the traditionalists’ banner with such vigor in opposing free verse that it is always a little startling to recall the revolutionary aspects of his style and the theories it embodied.” Frost distinguished between “strict iambic” and “loose iambic,” and “it is hard to find anything consistently strict in his blank verse.” “It was possible for many of the first readers of modern poetry to mistake Frost’s iambic pentameters for free verse.” Thus, his poems are “problematic model[s] of blank verse”—so much so that Frost felt compelled to tell readers about “The Death of a Hired Man” in 1942: “By the way, it’s in blank verse, not free verse.”
For “conservative modernists” such as Frost, Yeats, Edward Thomas, and Robert Graves, “meter was something to be stretched—sometimes to the breaking point—but it was not something to be discarded. It remained the recognizable foundation” (p. 113).
On a more mundane level I enjoy Robert Graves’ humorous “Welsh Incident” (read here by Richard Burton, who skillfully distinguishes the poem’s two speakers with his voice), although it violates my strong predilection for verse that is instantly comprehensible.
The lack of rhyme or visible patterns of stanzas in traditional blank verse in favor of big blocks of text (verse paragraphs of varying lengths), combined with enjambment (lines that flow into succeeding line(s) without end-stopping), is conducive to length, accommodating “prodigious flows of utterance”—which made the meter serviceable for the long plays of Shakespeare, or John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. In our time, Harvard professor Robert Fitzgerald translated Homer’s Odyssey (1961; 1998) and Iliad (1998), and Virgil’s Aenid (1983) into English using blank verse. His translations, still widely read, are considered accurate and pleasurable to read.
More recently, blank verse has been used extensively in short lyric poems and even epigrams.
Blank Verse and Prose
Book-length poems in blank verse, such as the older poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, are no longer common. Shaw is harshly critical of Robinson’s book-length poems, one reason being that there is no audience for “novels in verse.” He quotes David Perkins: “The reader of fiction is put off because it is poetry; the reader of poetry, because it lacks the intensity he seeks.”
Anthony Hecht’s 26-page “The Venetian Vespers” now passes for a long poem in the form, though “free-verse poems of the modern and contemporary era run hundreds of pages without exciting surprise.”
Robert Frost’s longest blank verse narrative, “Snow,” occupies 14 pages in his Complete Poems. Frost’s “shrewdness in gauging his readers’ attention span” has saved “a greater proportion of his work from receding into obscurity.” In the modern era, the traditional connection of blank verse to longer forms has given way to poems of less than a page.
A perceived similarity with prose has also been noted, in part because the iambic rhythm is dominant in English speech: “It has often been said that iambic pentameter comes closer than any other meter to the patterns of speech in the English language.” (p. 21)
Those who don’t like William Wordsworth’s blank verse, for example, frequently object to its “prosiness;” indeed, a primary aim of Wordsworth’s blank verse was “not to be noticed as meter.” And yet Wordsworth wrote: “Dr. [Samuel] Johnson observed, that in blank verse, the language suffered more distortion to keep it out of prose than any inconvenience to be apprehended from the shackles and circumspection of rhyme. This kind of distortion is the worst fault that poetry can have.” Wordsworth believed that blank verse “should observe the directness and expediency of prose discourse, yet at the same time contrive to make itself manifestly distinguishable from prose.”
Some people are drawn to the “prosiness” of blank verse, while others are not. John Addington Symonds in 1895 thought blank verse “a kind of divinised prose,” while Samuel Johnson, who frequently criticized it, said it was either “tumid and gorgeous” (which was not a compliment) or “crippled prose” presenting “familiar images in labored language.”
Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats were notable Romantic writers of blank verse; the two leading Victorian poets in the form were Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859–1885) is a cycle of twelve long blank verse poems about King Arthur, his knights, and the rise and fall of Camelot. Tennyson’s masculine, dignified, sonorous, exalted verse is the opposite of “prosie.”
I’ll end this review with a comical anecdote illustrating the stupidity of racial correctness.
An Establishment reviewer of Shaw’s book, Gilbert Wesley Purdy, laments that blank verse “more than any other traditional form, has remained almost entirely the domain of white, Anglo-Saxon, males, to this day.” This is “made clear,” he says, by a “partial list” of modern poets discussed by Shaw, “such trendy historical names as [Jew] Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Lowell [of the New England Lowells, but with part-Jewish ancestry on both sides of his family], James Merrill, Seamus Heaney [Irish Catholic] and [mulatto] Derek Walcott can be added to the writers of more recognizable blank verse such as [Jew] Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur and [Jew] Anthony Hecht.” He points to feminist poet Adrienne Rich (Jewish father, white mother) as an exception to the rule because she is female.
So, of Purdy’s nine “White Anglo-Saxon males,” three fit the description: John Berryman, James Merrill (a wealthy heir to the Merrill Lynch fortune who died of AIDS), and Richard Wilbur. Purdy’s dumb statement illustrates that the term “WASP” has become as formless as much of modern “blank verse” itself.
1. “The ghost of meter” was T. S. Eliot’s rationale, or rationalization, for the abandonment of traditional forms. For a succinct summary of the idea, read the second paragraph here.