Here’s what the Blank Verse poetry form is:
Blank verse is a poem type that’s usually written with precise meter—usually iambic pentameter—but with unrhymed lines.
Playwrights and dramatists from the 1550s developed the use of blank verse in English.
That eventually started the wide use of the blank verse poem type in both epic and dramatic poetry.
So if you want to learn all about the Blank Verse poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.
Forms of Poetry: Blank Verse
Blank verse is a unique form of poetry in which a meter is featured with no rhyme scheme.
This makes it unusual among forms in that the mere existence of a meter is the only defining characteristic of the form.
Despite this oddity, blank verse is actually among the most common forms of English poetry.
Many believe that it may well account for the majority of major English poems from around the mid-16th century onward
Basic Properties of the Blank Verse
|Strict; Usually Iambic Pentameter
|Mid-16th century England
|Most prevalent in 16th-18th century England but still popular in the present day
|Flexible; especially popular in theatrical presentations
How Is Blank Verse Structured?
In short, blank verse is solely defined by two things: the presence of a meter and the absence of rhyme, or at the very least absence of a rhyme scheme.
Meter refers to a poem written in feet.
Feet are essentially the units by which poetic beats of rhythm are measured and they vary in the number of syllables and the placement of the stressed and unstressed syllables within the foot.
The most relevant example here would be an Iambic foot since the majority of blank verse has traditionally been written in Iambic pentameter.
An Iamb consists of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable and is a fairly easy meter to utilize in English verse.
The “pentameter” refers to exactly what it sounds like it should – a meter consisting of five feet.
Iambic pentameter, therefore, will be five Iambs back-to-back.
This will always result in ten syllables with a pattern of unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, etc.
Because so much blank verse is written in Iambic pentameter, it tends to take on certain properties.
Since the lines are ten syllables each, there is generally enough room for a complete thought within every line or two.
Additionally, the fact that an Iambic line will always end with a stressed syllable and the next line will always begin with an unstressed syllable lends such poems a punchy rhythm that sounds decisive as it turns to new lines.
These, however, are the only qualities of the majority of blank verse poems.
While the form is often associated with Iambic pentameter, it is technically possible for a blank verse poem to consist of any number of syllables and any metric rhythm.
Example of a Blank Verse
from Hamlet by William Shakespeare
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,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life…
If you have never realized that this iconic speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet was blank verse, then don’t let it bother you.
It sounds so natural and fitting within the context of the play that it’s fully permissible to not notice until hearing it several times over.
But yes, the entire speech is written in unrhymed Iambic pentameter.
If you’ve ever wondered why the famous speech has a slight poetic tint to it that makes it sound unusually fluid and purposeful, then wonder no more.
As with much of Shakespeare’s blank verse, the speech features flexible use of enjambment.
The way it’s woven into the action seamlessly as a soliloquy makes it stand out even more than it already would have.
And Shakespeare makes the most of the opportunity by raising a poignant question about whether life truly has merit.
History of Blank Verse
Blank verse dates at least as far back as Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey.
His translation of the Æneid is commonly held to be the earliest known use of blank verse, published posthumously in the 1550s.
He may have simply been trying to imitate popular forms of Ancient Greek or Latin poetry, which did not feature rhyme in order to make his translation feel as close to the original as possible within the language barrier.
But this one decision may have ultimately led to the birth of the entire form and its spread after that.
Blank verse continued to gain traction over the next few centuries, with two of its most noteworthy contributors being Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, both of whom famously favored blank verse and displayed the form’s potential.
Shakespeare notably popularized an almost conversational variant of blank verse that utilized enjambment liberally to create long uninterrupted scenes in poetic form.
The influence of this style can still be seen in poetry today.
The form has been especially popular among playwrights, particularly in the centuries following Shakespeare, due in part to the way it lends a rhythm to spoken poems without sounding as forced or artificial as a rhymed poem would in the same presentation.
Though it’s safe to say that blank verse truly hit its stride early on, the form nonetheless remains popular among poets and scholars today.
It’s particularly popular as a learning tool since it allows students to learn about meters without the distractions of rhyme schemes or structures.
The majority of blank verse is and always has been written in Iambic pentameter.
Some sources even go so far as to define blank verse as exclusively being unrhymed Iambic pentameter.
However, the majority opinion among scholars seems to be that blank verse can be written in any meter.
It just usually hasn’t been historically.
Tips for Writing Blank Verse
Focus on your lines one at a time.
This is the first thing you need to learn.
Play out the rhythm of the meter you’re using in your head as you say the words aloud to yourself.
Shoot for around ten words in your first line, but don’t stress out over it at first.
Simply write a line that’s roughly ten syllables first.
Then trim and fatten where it doesn’t fit quite right.
Blank verse thrives on a quick mind that can list off shorter and longer syllables mentally.
When you get into the proper flow, each line will be like a quick puzzle game you play with yourself.
What word can you remove to fix the rhythm?
What word can you add?
Don’t be afraid to end mid-sentence, if you feel like you’ll still be able to give the end of the line some sort of impact.
Enjambment can be a powerful tool if used well.
Blank verse is a form that is achieved more through editing than through the initial writing of the lines, but it is advisable to edit each line as you go so that you’re fairly certain of where the next line will start.
This is actually one of the draws of the form, though.
Because blank verse requires so much pruning, you learn to treat editing as a critical part of the creative process.
Adding and removing content might seem trivial to a novice but writing a few blank verse poems will help you to see where you’re wasting words or limiting your vocabulary.
Another attractive facet of the blank verse is that most blank verse poems, by their very nature, end up very polished and professional sounding.
They require extensive enough attention to detail that you’re much less likely to miss a typo since you will have read through the entirety of the poem multiple times to check your meter.
Many would-be poets start with free verse and convince themselves there’s nowhere they need to go from there.
Taking what you learn from more advanced forms back with you to easier ones is what separates professional poets from amateurs though.
So it’s highly recommended that every aspiring poet try blank verse as an exercise from time to time.
It causes me physical pain to write in blank verse.
Meter is one thing but going out of your way to add a beat to a poem without giving it any rhyme just feels wrong to me on a fundamental level.
You do you, though.
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