Writing

Poetry 101: What Is the Difference Between Blank Verse and Free Verse?

Written by MasterClass

Apr 23, 2019 • 6 min read

Despite their similar names, free verse poems and blank verse poems are very different. Free verse poetry has been popular from the nineteenth century onward and is not bound by rules regarding rhyme or meter. Blank verse poetry came of age in the sixteenth century and has been famously employed by the likes of William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Wordsworth, and countless others. Unlike free verse, it adheres to a strong metrical pattern.

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What Is a Blank Verse Poem?

Blank verse is poetry written with a precise meter—almost always iambic pentameter—but that does not rhyme.

When a poem is written in iambic pentameter, it means each line contains five iambs—two syllable pairs in which the second syllable is emphasized.

As an example, consider the opening line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun

With proper iambic emphasis, the line would be read aloud in the following way:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun

While Shakespearean sonnets exemplify iambic pentameter, they are not examples of blank verse. Why? Because Shakespearean sonnets rhyme and blank verse does not. However, Shakespeare himself wrote extensively in blank verse. He did so in the text of his plays. Consider Romeo’s famous monologue from Act 2, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet. It begins:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.

Romeo speaks in blank verse, as he does throughout much of the play’s dramatic action. If we place iambic emphasis on his first line, it reads:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

Examples of Blank Verse Poems

Elizabethan era blank verse often manifested in the form of drama. Along with Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe was considered the great dramatist of the era, and he, too, wrote extensively in blank verse, as exemplified in this passage from Tamburlaine, Part II:

Like to an almond tree y-mounted high
Upon the lofty and celestial mount
Of evergreen Selinus, quaintly deck’d
With blooms more white than Erycina’s brows,
Whose tender blossoms tremble every one
At every little breath that thorough heaven is blown.

Spanning beyond drama, perhaps the most iconic example of blank verse poetry is the epic Paradise Lost by the English poet John Milton. An expansive re-telling of the fall of Adam and Eve, the poem contains over ten thousand lines of blank verse. An excerpt, starting on line 622, reads:

O Myriads of immortal Spirits, O Powers
Matchless, but with th' Almighty, and that strife
Was not inglorious, though th' event was dire,
As this place testifies, and this dire change
Hateful to utter: but what power of mind
Foreseeing or presaging, from the Depth
Of knowledge past or present, could have fear'd,
How such united force of Gods, how such
As stood like these, could ever know repulse?
For who can yet beleeve, though after loss,
That all these puissant Legions, whose exile
Hath emptied Heav'n, shall fail to re-ascend
Self-rais'd, and repossess thir native seat?

What Is Free Verse Poetry?

Free verse poetry is poetry that lacks a consistent rhyme scheme, metrical pattern, or musical form. While free verse poems are not devoid of structure, they allow enormous leeway for poets, particularly when compared to more metrically strict forms like blank verse.

Free verse poetry rose to prominence in the nineteenth century. While examples of unmetered, non-rhyming poetry date back to antiquity, such a style had not been of notable artistic prominence prior to the late 1800s.

A major touchstone for free verse poets was Leaves of Grass, a collection by the American poet Walt Whitman. Scholars have called Whitman the “father of free verse” although he is not known to have used the term himself. Leaves of Grass, which Whitman continually revised and expanded over the course of 37 years, draws from the cadences of biblical text.

What Are the Origins of Free Verse Poetry?

From Whitman onward, free verse poetry has thrived within the English language canon. It particularly thrived during the Modernist era of the early twentieth century. Practitioners included Gertrude Stein (1914’s Tender Buttons contains many free verse poems); T.S. Eliot (1922’s The Waste Land mixes free verse with blank verse and rhyming verse); and Ezra Pound. Even Robert Frost, famed for his rhyming poetry, experimented with free verse during his career.

In France, a parallel poetic form called “vers libre” was also developing. (The term translates literally as “free verse.”) French poets including Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé—many of whom had spent much of their careers writing more rigidly structured poetry—were all affiliated with the “vers libre” movement.

As the twentieth century pushed forward, some free verse poetry began to reclaim formal structure. Allen Ginsberg famously imposed structure upon free verse with his 1955/1956 poem “Howl.”

Although not bound by rhyme scheme or specific meter, the poem nevertheless maintains structure through Ginsberg’s use of repeated phrases such as “I’m with you” or “who…” or “Moloch…”

Examples of Free Verse Poems

The contemporary tradition of English language free verse begins with Walt Whitman. He published multiple versions of his Leaves of Grass anthology between 1855 and his death in 1892.

“I Hear America Singing”

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Twentieth-century free verse took more liberties, as evidenced by modernist William Carlos Williams. In “Portrait of a Lady” (1920), he sneaks in rhymes (along with semi-rhymes that are sometimes called “slant rhymes”) and flashes of rhythmic consistency. Ultimately, however, the poem is its own master; it bows to no preordained rules:

“Portrait of a Lady”

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady's
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze--or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
--as if that answered
anything. Ah, yes--below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore--
Which shore?--
the sand clings to my lips--
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

What Is the Difference Between Blank Verse and Free Verse in Poetry?

Although their names are similar, blank verse and free verse are decidedly different. Blank verse is bound by a metrical pattern—almost always iambic pentameter. It has been an immensely popular form for English language poetry for centuries, spanning from Shakespeare and Milton to Eliot and Frost.

Free verse has also existed for centuries, but it rose in prominence during the nineteenth century and remains so to this day. It is not bound by rules of rhyme and meter, although lines of free verse may be interspersed with more formally structured lines.

Living poets who are writing poetry today are generally unburdened with rules of rhyme or meter. This effectively makes free verse more popular than ever, but if you look carefully, many of these supposedly “free” poems may have more structure than meets the eye.

Love poetry? Practice reading and writing poetry with US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.