Free Verse

The term “Free verse” denotes a poem that is free from any restriction of formal verse.

It does not have a set metrical pattern, nor does it have a regular rhyme scheme. There is not any musicality, thus it creates a natural rhythm of speech between the lines.

Features of Free Verse

  • A free verse poem is unrestrained by traditional decorum.
  • It does not have a regular meter or rhyme scheme.
  • Structurally, there is no specific number of lines, syllables, or beats. The lines are intricately tied together for maintaining a natural flow.
  • It follows the scheme of natural speech.


Facts about Free Verse

  • Modern free verse poetry originated from the French vers libre.
  • The form was popularized during the late 19th century and early 20th century. The majority of published poetry of the 20th century was written in free verse.
  • Walt Whitman is often regarded as the father of free verse poetry.
  • Free verse is described as spaced prose, a mosaic of verse, and prose experience. However, all prose poems are free verse, not all free verse poems are prose poems.


Famous Examples

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman

This poem belongs to Walt Whitman’s best-loved collection of poetry Leaves of Grass. Let’s explore Whitman’s ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’ and understand how he uses this form resonates with the theme and subject matter.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

This poem is non-metrical and consists of unrhymed lines. If we closely look at the structure of this piece, we can find a pattern. In the first four lines, the length of lines gradually increases as if the “learn’d astronomer” piles on a number of boring tasks on the speaker. The fourth line has the maximum words and also sounds monotonous for the length. It reflects the mood of the speaker.

When Whitman’s speaker comes out of the boring lecture room, the tension present in the previous lines vanishes. To depict a sense of harmony, Whitman uses internal rhyming which is absent in the previous section.

In this way, Whitman uses the freedom of free verse to depict the mood of his poetic persona. The form reflects the subject matter and theme as well.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

It’s one of the most famous poems of T.S. Eliot. In this piece, Eliot does not use a specific meter or rhyme scheme. It’s written in free verse. Let’s explore the first few lines from this poem.

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question …

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

Though the first and last two lines of this excerpt contain regular rhyming, the overall text is in free verse. There is not any fixed syllable count per line.

Now, let’s understand how Eliot uses the form exceptionally to set the mood and ambiance.

First of all, the contraction of the fifth and nine lines creates a depressing mood. To describe the scene, he packs the lines with the use of enjambment that maintains the flow of the piece. The use of internal rhyming has an ironic effect on a reader’s mind.

In this free verse poem, the use of punctuation marks is also important to understand. For instance, in the first line, the pause marks reflect the style of formal speech. The sudden breaks, makes a reader emphasize specific words.

Other Free Verse Poems to Explore

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