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.
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.
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.