Free verse

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Free verse is an open form of poetry. It does not use consistent meter patterns, rhyme, or any musical pattern.[1]


Poets have explained that free verse is not totally free: "Its only freedom is from the tyrant demands of the metered line."[2] Free verse displays some elements of form. Most free verse maintains the poetic convention of the poetic line to some degree, at least in written representations, though retaining a potential degree of linkage.[clarification needed] Donald Hall goes as far as to say that "the form of free verse is as binding and as liberating as the form of a rondeau,"[3] and T. S. Eliot wrote, "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."[4]

Kenneth Allott, the poet and critic, said the adoption by some poets of vers libre arose from "mere desire for novelty, the imitation of Whitman, the study of Jacobean dramatic blank verse, and the awareness of what French poets had already done to the alexandrine in France."[5] The American critic John Livingston Lowes in 1916 observed "Free verse may be written as very beautiful prose; prose may be written as very beautiful free verse. Which is which?"[6]

Some poets have considered free verse restrictive in its own way. In 1922, Robert Bridges voiced his reservations in the essay "Humdrum and Harum-Scarum." Robert Frost later remarked that writing free verse was like "playing tennis without a net."[clarification needed] William Carlos Williams said, "Being an art form, verse cannot be free in the sense of having no limitations or guiding principles."[7] Yvor Winters, the poet and critic, said, "The free verse that is really verse, the best that is, of W.C. Williams, H. D., Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound is the antithesis of free."[8]


As the French-language term vers libre suggests, this technique of using more irregular cadences is often said to have its origin in the practices of 19th-century French poets such as Gustave Kahn and Jules Laforgue in his Derniers vers of 1890. Taupin, the US-based French poet and critic, concluded that free verse and vers libre are not synonymous, since "the French language tends to give equal weight to each spoken syllable, whereas English syllables vary in quantity according to whether stressed or unstressed."[9]

The sort of cadencing that we now recognize in free verse can be traced back at least as far as the Biblical Hebrew psalmist poetry of the Bible.[10] By referring to the Psalms, it is possible to argue that free verse in English first appeared in the 1380s in the John Wycliffe translation of the Psalms and was repeated in different form in most biblical translations ever since.

Walt Whitman, who based his long lines in his poetry collection Leaves of Grass on the phrasing of the King James Bible, influenced later American free verse composers, notably Allen Ginsberg.[11] One form of free verse was employed by Christopher Smart in his long poem Jubilate Agno (Latin: Rejoice in the Lamb) , written some time between 1759 and 1763 but not published until 1939.

Many poets of the Victorian era experimented with free verse. Christina Rossetti, Coventry Patmore, and T. E. Brown all wrote examples of rhymed but unmetered verse, poems such as W. E. Henley's "Discharged" (from his In Hospital sequence).

Free verse in English was persuasively advocated by critic T. E. Hulme in his A Lecture on Modern Poetry (1908). Later in the preface to Some Imagist Poets 1916, he comments, "Only the name is new, you will find something much like vers libre in Dryden's Threnodia Augustalis; a great deal of Milton's Samson Agonistes, and the oldest in Chaucer's House of Fame."[12]

In France, a few pieces in Arthur Rimbaud's prose poem collection Illuminations were arranged in manuscript in lines, rather than prose, and in the Netherlands, tachtiger (i.e., a member of the 1880s generation of innovative poets) Frederik van Eeden employed the form at least once' in his poem "Waterlelie" ("Water Lily").[13]

Goethe—particularly in some early poems, such as "Prometheus"—and Hölderlin used free verse occasionally, due in part to a misinterpretation of the meter used in Pindar's poetry; in Hölderlin's case, he also continued to write unmetered poems after discovering this error.[14]

The German poet Heinrich Heine made an important contribution to the development of free verse with 22 poems, written in two-poem cycles, called Die Nordsee (The North Sea) (written 1825-1826).[15] These were first published in Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs) in 1827.

Form and structure[edit]

Although free verse requires no meter, rhyme, or other traditional poetic techniques, a poet can still use them to create some sense of structure. A clear example of this can be found in Walt Whitman's poems, where he repeats certain phrases and uses commas to create both a rhythm and structure.

Pattern and discipline is to be found in good free verse: the internal pattern of sounds, the choice of exact words, and the effect of associations give free verse its beauty.[16] With the Imagists free verse became a discipline and acquired status as a legitimate poetic form.[17] Herbert Read, however, noted that "the Imagist Ezra Pound gave free verse its musical structure to an extent that parodoxically it was no longer free."[18]

Unrestrained by traditional boundaries, Yvor Winters described this as "attempts to widen experience by establishing 'abnormal' conventions,"[8] the poet possesses more license to express, and has more control over the development of the poem. This can allow for a more spontaneous and individualized poetic art product.

Technically, free verse has been described as spaced prose, a mosaic of verse and prose experience.[19]


  1. ^ Abbs, Peter; Richardson, John. The Forms of Poetry: A practical study guide for English (15th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 137. ISBN 978-0-521-37160-5.
  2. ^ Allen, Charles, "Cadenced Free Verse", College English, vol 9, number 6, January 1948
  3. ^ Donald Hall, in the essay 'Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird' in the book of 0-472-40000-2.
  4. ^ Eliot quote from the essay, "The Music of Poetry" Jackson (1 January 1942) ASIN B0032Q49RO
  5. ^ Introductory Note by Kenneth Allott (ed.) The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England 1950
  6. ^ Lowes, Livingston John, Nation Feb 1916
  7. ^ Free Verse, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 2nd Ed, 1975
  8. ^ a b Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry Arrow Editions, New York, 1937
  9. ^ Taupin, Rene. The Influence of French Symbolism on Modern American Poetry (1986), (translated by William Pratt), Ams Studies in Modern Literature, ISBN 0-404-61579-1
  10. ^ Allen, Charles 'Cadenced Free Verse' , College English , vol 9, no 6 January 1948
  11. ^ H. T. Kirby-Smith (1998). The Origins of Free Verse. University of Michigan Press. p. 44. ISBN 0-472-08565-4.
  12. ^ Preface to Some Imagist Poets, Constable, 1916
  13. ^ De waterlelie
  14. ^ Michael Hamburger: Foreword in Robert Marcellus Browning (ed.): German poetry from 1750 to 1900 (The German Library, vol. 39), New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1984, p. XV, ISBN 0-8264-0282-8
  15. ^ "Songs of Love and Grief: A Bilingual Anthology in the Verse Forms of the ... - Heinrich Heine - Google Books". 22 November 1995. Retrieved 2013-04-23.
  16. ^ Boulton, Marjories, Anatomy of Poetry, Routledge&Kegan, London 1953
  17. ^ Pratt, William. The Imagist Poem, Modern Poetry in Miniature (Story Line Press, 1963, expanded 2001). ISBN 1-58654-009-2.
  18. ^ Read, Herbert Ezra Pound, The Tenth Muse. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1957
  19. ^ Patterson, William Morrison, Rhythm of Prose (Preface 2nd edition) Columbia University Press, 1916. [1]

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