Blank verse has been used in both drama and poetry for centuries. Watch this video to see how different poets use this technique to bring the audience into a trance or to jolt them into reflection.
What Is Blank Verse?
Blank verse is a category of poetry based on unrhymed lines and a definite meter, usually of iambic pentameter, examples of which can be found in Shakespeare, William Cullen Bryant, and Robert Frost.
What? You're still not sure what blank verse is? Well, to really understand blank verse, we need to look at meter, or the number of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. This pattern usually takes a 'DA-DUM' effect when we read them. Take this example from John Berryman's 'The Ball Poem':
What is the boy now, who has lost his ball,
Can you hear the pattern of the unstressed and stressed syllables?
With blank verse, we typically find iambic pentameter, which is five sets of unstressed/stressed iambs, for a total of ten syllables. So, if we look again at 'What is the boy now, who has lost his ball', we can see that we have a set of five iambs for a total of ten syllables.
But what makes something blank verse is both the use of meter and unrhymed lines in the verse. Sometimes we see the iambic pentameter used to rhyme, like in Shakespeare's 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' While we have iambic pentameter in this poem, we also see that 'day' and 'May', 'temperate' and 'date', are rhyming lines. Therefore, this falls short of blank verse.
If we look again at Berryman's 'The Ball Poem' we see that it has iambic pentameter and it has unrhymed lines: ball, go, then, and water do not rhyme. This is an example of blank verse.
How Is Blank Verse Different From Free Verse?
Before we look at some examples of blank verse, it's important to note that it can be easily confused with free verse, a different category of poetry. Verse poetry is poetry that has both a consistent meter and a rhyme scheme. Both blank verse and free verse are free from a rhyme scheme. But whereas free verse is free from both meter and rhyme, blank verse does have a consistent meter.
How and Why Did Shakespeare Use Blank Verse?
Shakespeare is well known for using blank verse in many of his plays. Some of his characters' most famous speeches set themselves apart not only because of their content but also their use of blank verse. While the lack of rhyme keeps the dialogue conversational, the rhythmic pattern draws the audience into the chant. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth reveals her plan to kill King Duncan using blank verse:
But screw your courage to the stickling place,
And we'll not fail. When Duncan is asleep--
Whereto the rather shall his day's hard journey
Soundly invite him--his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince
But why would Shakespeare choose to use blank verse only some of the time? Sometimes the rhythmic nature of the lines reflects the introspection of the characters or highlights a particularly important point in the play's plot.
Who Else Used Blank Verse?
Of course, we could look at dozens of other examples of blank verse from Shakespeare's plays, but we can find it in poetry as well. In his poem 'Thanatopsis', William Cullen Bryant uses blank verse as he encourages us to listen to nature.
To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
The blank verse adds a cadence, a subtle rhythm that might mimic the very pattern of language we would hear if we simply listen to nature.
Shakespeare used blank verse to draw attention to his important points. Robert Frost does almost the opposite in his poem 'the Mending Wall.' While most lines of the poem follow the 10-syllable blank verse, he occasionally throws in an 11th syllable for effect. And it's on these 11-syllable lines, as opposed to the lines in blank verse, that he wants us to pay extra attention.
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.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
Blank verse is a category of poetry that uses unrhymed lines and a defined meter, often iambic pentameter, which is five sets of unstressed and stressed iambs. Unlike free verse, which does not have a defined meter, blank verse uses the pattern of unstressed, stressed syllables to create a rhythmic effect that can entrance or interrupt the audience's reading of the poem. And while we do find blank verse from poets such as William Cullen Bryant, Robert Frost, and John Berryman, we can also find it in the most profound dialogue in Shakespeare's plays. Regardless of where it appears, blank verse is the most conversational use of meter that people have enjoyed for centuries.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Define blank verse in literature
- Describe what iambic pentameter is and its use in blank verse
- Identify some of the major writers who used blank verse