Glossary Home Poetic Forms

Blank Verse

Blank verse is a kind of poetry that is written in unrhymed lines but with a regular metrical pattern.

This type of verse is almost always iambic pentameter. It is extraordinarily widespread and has had an enormous impact on English poetry since it became popular in the 16th century. Scholars have estimated that close to three-fourths of all English poetry is in blank verse.

When was blank verse first used?

It is first documented in the 1500s in Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s translation of the Aeneid. The Latin original, written by Virgil, did not conform to a blank verse-like pattern.

When you consider the form’s popularization, Christopher Marlowe should come to mind. He was the first English author to receive positive reviews for his use of the verse form. But, more often than not, it is Shakespeare who is tied most intimately to this technique of writing. Within his plays, he often made use of unrhymed iambic pentameter, a.k.a. blank verse.

There are numerous other very well-known examples. Such as, Paradise Lost by John Milton, which is written in what is is known as Miltonic blank verse.

Other English poets, specifically the Romantics, William Wordsworth, and John Keats also used the form to varying degrees. Alfred, Lord Tennyson is another writer who is considered to have used blank verse to its greatest potential. His most famous poem, ‘Ulysses’ is written in this form.

Do writers still use blank verse?

Yes! They certainly do, but it is not nearly as common as it once was. The majority of modern examples come from the early-mid 1900s. Take for example Robert Frost’s narrative poems, such as, Birches. This piece, as well as many others, were written in blank verse. Other modern poets, such John Betjeman, W.H. Auden, and Wallace Stevens used the form as well. Let’s take Stevens’ most famous poem ‘The Idea of Order at the Key West’ as an example.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.

The song and water were not medleyed sound

Even if what she sang was what she heard,

Since what she sang was uttered word by word.

It may be that in all her phrases stirred

The grinding water and the gasping wind;

But it was she and not the sea we heard.

It is easy enough to count the syllables, and take note of the alternating unstressed and stressed beats. Although Stevens enjoyed the form, there are moments in the poem in which there are more than 10 syllables per line or the stresses become confused. This is more common than not within blank verse poetry. Writers, especially those closer to our day than Shakespeare’s took liberties when they wanted.

Take a look at these examples of blank verse:

Share to...