Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The same person who invented the Shakespearean sonnet also invented blank verse. Yes, that’s right: it was a sixteenth-century poet named … Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. It was Surrey who adapted the Italian sonnet form, devising the rhyme scheme that would later be used (and named after) William Shakespeare, and it was Surrey who first pioneered the use of unrhymed iambic pentameter, more commonly known as ‘blank verse’ (and not to be confused with free verse, which is also unrhymed but which doesn’t have a regular metre either). We have offered a brief introduction to blank verse here; below are ten classic examples of blank verse from English literature.
William Shakespeare, ‘To be or not to be’ from Hamlet.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life…
One of the great meditations on suicide in English literature, this speech has become so well-known that its meaning and power have become less clear: as T. S. Eliot observed of Hamlet, it is the Mona Lisa of literature. (We discuss Shakespeare’s play in more detail here.) Read variously as a meditation on suicide and as in the broader context of Hamlet’s supposed vacillation over whether to avenge his father’s death, this speech is powerful in part because it combines these and other themes: Hamlet is thinking about how death would relieve him of all of these troubles, such as whether to take revenge for his father’s murder, but where will he go if he takes his own life? What happens when we die? This question is relevant not just for Young Hamlet’s future but Old Hamlet’s fate, too: Hamlet doesn’t know whether the Ghost, purporting to be his father, was really Old Hamlet in Purgatory or whether it was some demon assuming his father’s form, sent from hell to tempt him to commit murder. To recover the importance and power of Hamlet’s soliloquy, we need to hear a good actor recite the lines. We recommend Paul Scofield’s version, which you can listen to here.
John Milton, Paradise Lost.
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos…
Probably the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost (1667) was not Milton’s first attempt at an epic: as a teenager, Milton began writing an epic poem in Latin about the Gunpowder Plot; but in quintum novembris remained unfinished. Instead, his defining work would be this 12-book poem in blank verse about the Fall of Man, taking in Satan’s fall from Heaven, his founding of Pandemonium (the capital of Hell), and his subsequent temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden.
William Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’.
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky…
This poem was not actually composed at Tintern Abbey, but, as the poem’s full title reveals, was written nearby, overlooking the ruins of the medieval priory in the Wye Valley in South Wales. Well, actually, according to Wordsworth, he didn’t ‘write’ a word of the poem until he got to Bristol, where he wrote down the whole poem, having composed it in his head shortly after leaving the Wye. The poem is one of the great hymns to tranquillity, quiet contemplation, and self-examination in all of English literature, and a quintessential piece of Romantic poetry written in meditative blank verse.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh.
Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,–
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is…
As well as being used for verse drama and meditative lyrics, blank verse has also proved highly useful for poets writing longer narrative poems, as Milton’s use of blank verse demonstrates. Victorian poems could be long and ambitious, and this is the crowning achievement of the Victorian long poem – although really it’s as much a verse novel as it is an epic poem. Barrett Browning’s love affair with epic poetry began at a young age: when she was just twelve years old, she wrote The Battle of Marathon, an epic poem about the battle between the Greeks and Persians in 490 BC. But her crowning achievement in the genre would be her long blank-verse novel Aurora Leigh (1857), about an aspiring female poet, which takes in issues of marriage, female authorship and independence, and what happened to women who ‘strayed’ outside of the accepted norms of Victorian society: the so-called ‘fallen woman’, embodied here by Aurora’s friend Marian Erle.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
We could have chosen a number of other Tennyson poems written in blank verse here, but we’ve opted for ‘Ulysses’ because it’s about a hero of classical myth, Odysseus (or Ulysses to the Romans) and so follows Sappho’s poem nicely. In this classic dramatic monologue, the ageing Ulysses prepares to leave his home of Ithaca and sail off into the sunset on one last adventure. Is he old and deluded, a man who cannot just accept he’s past it? Or is he a bold and hardy adventurer whose persistence we should admire as – well, as heroic? Readers are often divided on that issue…
Robert Browning, ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’.
I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.
Zooks, what’s to blame? you think you see a monk!
What, ’tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley’s end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?
Like Tennyson, Browning pioneered the dramatic monologue in the 1830s and 1840s, and one of his finest examples is also written in blank verse. ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ sees the titular friar being accosted by some guards one night, and ending up drunkenly telling them – and us – about his whole life. In a poem like ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ one can clearly see why Ezra Pound was influenced by Browning’s dramatic monologue, with their plainness of speech and the bluff, no-nonsense manner of Browning’s characters.
W. B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This blank verse poem prophesies that some sort of Second Coming is due, and that the anarchy that has arisen all around the world (partly because of the events of the First World War, though the tumultuous events in Yeats’s home country of Ireland are also behind the poem) is a sign that this Second Coming cannot be far off. Yeats wrote ‘The Second Coming’ in 1919.
Robert Frost, ‘Mending Wall’. Robert Frost rejected the modernist experimentations of many of his contemporaries, and instead chose to write in a plainer style following earlier poets like Wordsworth. So it’s of little surprise that he liked writing in blank verse. One of Frost’s most famous poems, ‘Mending Wall’ is about the human race’s primitive urge to ‘mark its territory’ and our fondness for setting clear boundaries for our houses and gardens. Whilst Frost believes that such markers are a throwback to an earlier stage in mankind’s development, his neighbour believes that ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’
Edward Thomas, ‘As the Team’s Head-Brass’.
As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war…
‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ is one of the best-loved and most widely-anthologised poems by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), who is viewed variously as a Georgian poet and as a poet of the First World War. Thomas wrote ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ in 1916, focusing on attitudes to the ongoing war expressed by people back home in England, rather than fighting at the front. Below is the poem, and some words of analysis.
Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’. This longer poem first appeared in 1915 in the magazine Poetry, although the fuller version was only published in Harmonium in 1923. Yvor Winters, an influential critic of modernist poetry and a minor modernist in his own right, pronounced ‘Sunday Morning’ to be ‘the greatest American poem of the twentieth century’. The poem, which is a meditation on not being a Christian, offers a different view of Sunday from George Herbert’s Sunday poem above, and is more in keeping with Dickinson’s poem. ‘Sunday Morning’ centres on a woman who stays at home, lounging around, on a Sunday morning, when virtually everyone else is at church. The poem includes the statement that ‘Death is the mother of beauty’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.