Free verse – poetry that has no regular metre or line lengths, and is often unrhymed – has been a feature of poetry since at least the nineteenth century, although earlier examples can also be found. However, much of the real innovation in free verse arguably happened in the nineteenth century – particularly in America and France – and the first few decades of the twentieth century, so the following ten classic examples of free verse are mostly from this period. What do you think are the best examples of free verse poems?
Christopher Smart, ‘My Cat Jeoffrey’.
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer …
Although free verse really gets going in the nineteenth century, this eighteenth-century example of a free-verse poem is noteworthy, even though it was only first published in 1939. Christopher ‘Kit’ Smart (1722-1771) was confined to a mental asylum for a number of years, and it was during his confinement that Smart wrote Jubilate Agno (‘Rejoice in the Lamb’), a religious poem composed between 1759 and 1763. As the title of the longer poem suggests, Smart took his inspiration from the Bible, especially the Psalms, and his free verse is influenced by the structure of psalms and bible verses. This section of that longer work considers Jeoffrey, Smart’s only companion during his time in the asylum.
Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass …
America had its own rich poetic tradition in the nineteenth century, and the development of poetry in the United States had a different trajectory. The poetry of Walt Whitman is summed up by his long, sprawling poem ‘Song of Myself’, which seems to embody his call for literary independence and self-expression. When Whitman’s 1855 volume Leaves of Grass was published at Whitman’s own expense – the first edition containing just a dozen untitled poems – ‘Song of Myself’ headed the collection. This statement of selfhood contains the famous line ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.
Gustave Kahn, ‘The Dying Lover’. There were two kinds of free verse which arose in the nineteenth century: the American-style ‘free verse’ which Whitman pioneered, inspired by the same psalms which had influenced Smart, and the French vers libre (literally, ‘free verse’) which later Symbolist poets like Gustave Kahn helped to bring into being. In this short poem, Kahn, like Whitman, adopts a liberal approach to metre, avoiding rhyme. Kahn is credited with being the one to name vers libre and theorise it.
Stephane Mallarmé, ‘A Dice Throw’. Alongside the vers libre experiments of Kahn, other French poets at the end of the nineteenth century were playing around with verse form, and this example of free verse from Stephane Mallarmé is somewhat different, and can be regarded as an early example of concrete poetry. The poem was published in 1897, and uses much blank space between the words and lines of the verse. Click on the link above to read an excerpt from the longer (20-page) poem.
T. E. Hulme, ‘Autumn’.
A touch of cold in the Autumn night –
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer …
Arguably the first great poem written in English whose form takes its cue from French vers libre, ‘Autumn’, written in 1908, is a short lyric which likens the ‘ruddy moon’ to the red face of a farmer; in doing so, Hulme also revealed a debt to French Symbolist poets in terms of their innovative approach to imagery, too.
H. D., ‘The Pool’. In many ways the quintessential imagist poem, ‘The Pool’ is from 1915 and was written by the US-born Hilda Doolittle after she had settled in the UK and become a part of the imagist movement with her husband Richard Aldington and her friend (and former fiancé) Ezra Pound. Many imagist poems, following Hulme’s lead in ‘Autumn’, were inspired by the French vers libre, and ‘The Pool’ is a particularly fine example. Labelled ‘the perfect imagist’, H. D. (as she styled herself, after Pound’s suggestion) here presents us with a clear image – as clear as a rock-pool, in fact – that has a mystery at the heart of it. What is the thing in the pool? Is it nothing more than the image of her own face gazing back at her? Is this a love poem, a nature poem, or a poem about the self? We’ve analysed H. D.’s mysterious poem here.
T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The term ‘free verse’ is often overused in relation to T. S. Eliot’s work, and in an essay of 1917 he argued that any verse worthy of the name isn’t truly ‘free’ at all, and usually follows the rough pattern of a simple form, like iambic pentameter. We can see this at work in Eliot’s first great poem here, where the erratic rhymes and line lengths are set to the rhythms of the Shakespearean verse line (Elizabethan and Jacobean drama being a big influence on Eliot), as Eliot’s character Prufrock tries and fails to broach an ‘overwhelming question’ as he attends social gatherings and struggles to talk to women. Like the verse form, Prufrock is not truly ‘free’, and feels isolated and trapped in the environment he finds himself in, wishing he could be a pair of ragged claws at the bottle of the ocean instead of a middle-aged, balding single man in twentieth-century America…
Hope Mirrlees, Paris: A Poem. Bearing the influence of French avant-garde poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, and Jean Cocteau, Paris: A Poem (1919; published 1920) was written by a British female modernist poet, Helen Hope Mirrlees. It takes the very notion of ‘free verse’ to a new level, and like ‘A Dice Throw’ is almost beyond free verse as we usually employ that term: some of it doesn’t seem to resemble ‘poetry’ on the page at all! Juxtaposing street signs and advertisements in the Paris Metro with allusions to Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and French painting, Paris follows a female wanderer through the streets of the city over the course of a whole day. Above, we’ve linked to a pdf of the first edition of the poem (published by Virginia Woolf in 1920) from the Hope Mirrlees website.
Langston Hughes, ‘Mother to Son’. Probably the best-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (1902-67) adopts the maternal voice for this short poem in free verse, expressing the views of an African American mother as she addresses her son, telling him that life has been hard for her but that the important thing is to keep climbing and not to turn back.
William Carlos Williams, ‘This Is Just to Say’. One of the most famous examples of free verse in Anglophone literature, written by one of the greatest American modernist poets, ‘This Is Just to Say’ sometimes infuriates or baffles readers: it is, after all, a note left by a man for his wife apologising (but also, not apologising) for greedily munching on all of the plums that she’d been saving in the fridge. Part of the poem’s challenge to our idea of poetry is in its effective use of free verse, and it’s been much copied and parodied since its publication in 1934.