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Blank Verse: A History, Definition, Examples

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

BLANK VERSE, the unrhymed measure of iambic decasyllable in five beats which is usually adopted in English epic and dramatic poetry. The epithet is due to the absence of the rhyme which the ear expects at the end of successive lines. The decasyllabic line occurs for the first time in a Provençal poem of the 10th century, but in the earliest instances preserved it is already constructed with such regularity as to suggest that it was no new invention. It was certainly being used almost simultaneously in the north of France. Chaucer employed it in his Compleynte to Pitie about 1370. In all the literatures of western Europe it became generally used, but always with rhyme. In the beginning of the 16th century, however, certain Italian poets made the experiment of writing decasyllabics without rhyme. The tragedy of Sophonisba (1515) of G.G. Trissino (1478-1550) was the earliest work completed in this form; it was followed in 1525 by the didactic poem Le Api (The Bees), of Giovanni Rucellai (1475-1525), who announced his intention of writing ”Con verso Etrusco dalle rime sciolto,” in consequence of which expression this kind of metre was called versi sciolti or blank verse. In a very short time this form was largely adopted in Italian dramatic poetry, and the comedies of Ariosto, the Aminta of Tasso and the Pastor Fido of Guarini are composed in it. The iambic blank verse of Italy was, however, mainly hendecasyllabic, not decasyllabic, and under French influences the habit of rhyme soon returned.

Before the close of Trissino’s life, however, his invention had been introduced into another literature, where it was destined to enjoy a longer and more glorious existence. Towards the close of the reign of Henry VIII., Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, translated two books of the Aeneid into English rhymeless verse, “drawing” them “into a strange metre.” Surrey’s blank verse is stiff and timid, permitting itself no divergence from the exact iambic movement:—

“Who can express the slaughter of that night,

Or tell the number of the corpses slain,

Or can in tears bewail them worthily?

The ancient famous city falleth down,

That many years did hold such seignory.”

Surrey soon found an imitator in Nicholas Grimoald, and in 1562 blank verse was first applied to English dramatic poetry in the Gorboduc of Sackville and Norton. In 1576, in the Steel Glass of Gascoigne, it was first used for satire, and by the year 1585 it had come into almost universal use for theatrical purposes. In Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon and Peek’s Arraignment of Paris (both of 1584) we find blank verse struggling with rhymed verse and successfully holding its own. The earliest play written entirely in blank verse is supposed to be The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587) of Thomas Hughes. Marlowe now immediately followed, with the magnificent movement of his Tamburlaine (1589), which was mocked by satirical critics as “the swelling bombast of bragging blank verse” (Nash) and “the spacious volubility of a drumming decasyllable” (Greene), but which introduced a great new music into English poetry, in such “mighty lines” as

“Still climbing after knowledge infinite,

And always moving as the restless spheres,”


“See where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!”

Except, however, when he is stirred by a particularly vivid emotion, the blank verse of Marlowe continues to be monotonous and uniform. It still depends too exclusively on a counting of syllables. But Shakespeare, after having returned to rhyme in his earliest dramas, particularly in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, adopted blank verse conclusively about the time that the career of Marlowe was closing, and he carried it to the greatest perfection in variety, suppleness and fulness. He released it from the excessive bondage that it had hitherto endured; as Robert Bridges has said, “Shakespeare, whose early verse may be described as syllabic, gradually came to write a verse dependent on stress.” In comparison with that of his predecessors and successors, the blank verse of Shakespeare is essentially regular, and his prosody marks the admirable mean between the stiffness of his dramatic forerunners and the laxity of those who followed him. Most of Shakespeare’s lines conform to the normal type of the decasyllable, and the rest are accounted for by familiar and rational rules of variation. The ease and fluidity of his prosody were abused by his successors, particularly by Beaumont and Fletcher, who employed the soft feminine ending to excess; in Massinger dramatic blank verse came too near to prose, and in Heywood and Shirley it was relaxed to the point of losing all nervous vigour.

The later dramatists gradually abandoned that rigorous difference which should always be preserved between the cadence of verse and prose, and the example of Ford, who endeavoured to revive the old severity of blank verse, was not followed. But just as the form was sinking into dramatic desuetude, it took new life in the direction of epic, and found its noblest proficient in the person of John Milton. The most intricate and therefore the most interesting blank verse which has been written is that of Milton in the great poems of his later life. He reduced the elisions, which had been frequent in the Elizabethan poets, to law; he admitted an extraordinary variety in the number of stresses; he deliberately inverted the rhythm in order to produce particular effects; and he multiplied at will the caesurae or breaks in a line. Such verses as

“Arraying with reflected purple and gold—

Shoots invisible virtue even to the deep—

Universal reproach, far worse to bear—

Me, me only, just object of his ire”—

are not mistaken in rhythm, nor to be scanned by forcing them to obey the conventional stress. They are instances, and Paradise Lost is full of such, of Milton’s exquisite art in ringing changes upon the metrical type of ten syllables, five stresses and a rising rhythm, so as to make the whole texture of the verse respond to his poetical thought. Writing many years later in Paradise Regained and in Samson Agonistes, Milton retained his system of blank verse in its general characteristics, but he treated it with increased dryness and with a certain harshness of effect. It is certainly in his biblical drama that blank verse has been pushed to its most artificial and technical perfection, and it is there that Milton’s theories are to be studied best; yet it must be confessed that learning excludes beauty in some of the very audacious irregularities which he here permits himself in Samson Agonistes. Such lines as

“Made arms ridiculous, useless the forgery—

My griefs not only pain me as a lingering disease—

Drunk with idolatry, drunk with wine—

Justly, yet despair not of his final pardon”—

are constructed with perfect comprehension of metrical law, yet they differ so much from the normal structure of blank verse that they need to be explained, and to imitate them would be perilous. A persistent weakness in the third foot has ever been the snare of English blank verse, and it is this element of monotony and dulness which Milton is ceaselessly endeavouring to obviate by his wonderful inversions, elisions and breaks.

After the Restoration, and after a brief period of experiment with rhymed plays, the dramatists returned to the use of blank verse, and in the hands of Otway, Lee and Dryden, it recovered much of its magnificence. In the 18th century, Thomson and others made use of a very regular and somewhat monotonous form of blank verse for descriptive and didactic poems, of which the Night Thoughts of Young is, from a metrical point of view, the most interesting. With these poets the form is little open to licence, while inversions and breaks are avoided as much as possible. Since the 18th century, blank verse has been subjected to constant revision in the hands of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, the Brownings and Swinburne, but no radical changes, of a nature unknown to Shakespeare and Milton, have been introduced into it.