Here’s a question for you: who invented both the Shakespearean sonnet and blank verse? Yes, that’s right: it was a sixteenth-century poet named … Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (c. 1517-47). 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 explain what free verse is here).
What is blank verse?
Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter. But what is iambic pentameter? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is by way of an example or two. First, from Shakespeare:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off!
These are the lines Romeo speaks when clapping eyes on Juliet. They’re unrhymed – breaks, sun, moon, grief, she, envious, and so on – but they do have a regular rhythm, which can be heard if you speak Romeo’s words out loud (there are ten syllables and five heavy stresses per line – so five iambs; this is known as iambic pentameter). In other words, we get a light stress followed by a heavy stress: ‘But SOFT. What LIGHT. Through YON. Der WIN. Dow BREAKS.’ And so on.
Where and when did blank verse originate?
It was in the 1540s that the Earl of Surrey (pictured right) first used blank verse, in his English translation of Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid. Curiously, although blank verse is a home-grown English form, Surrey was almost certainly inspired to create blank verse by reading a 1539 Italian translation of the Aeneid by the Italian poet Franceso Maria Molza. In his Italian translation, Molza used a form known as versi sciolti or ‘freed verse’. Just as the Shakespearean sonnet, Surrey’s other great innovation and bequest to English literature, was a distinctly English take on an Italian form, so blank verse was influenced by a foreign form that was ‘Anglicised’ so that it would match the rhythms of everyday English speech.
And this is the thing that people often say about blank verse: that it’s the verse form closest to the rhythms of everyday English speech. This is true, although it’s worth bearing in mind that free verse – not to be confused with blank verse – is even closer to the rhythms of everyday speech, because it also captures the irregularities of English speech.
But among the regular verse forms, blank verse definitely takes the prize. Many utterances in English speech, even those in prose or ordinary conversation, naturally take on the rhythm of blank verse. And sometimes we don’t even hear the beats. You see? That sentence was an example of iambic pentameter. And because we don’t go about speaking to each other in rhyme (well, most of us, anyway), blank verse rather than rhymed iambic pentameter is closer to everyday speech, than, say, rhyming couplets like this:
What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing — This verse to Caryl, Muse! is due:
This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,
If She inspire, and He approve my lays.
This (from Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock) is iambic pentameter, but it’s in rhyming couplets: springs/things, due/view, praise/lays, and so it continues. By contrast, this, from William Wordsworth, immediately strikes us as more ‘natural’ and closer to ordinary speech, because it’s unrhymed:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love …
These lines, from Wordsworth’s 1798 poem ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798’, commonly known as ‘Tintern Abbey’ to save about five minutes, show that blank verse is especially useful for more meditative, contemplative poems. Note also the frequent use of enjambment or run-on lines: this is when the end of the line is not marked by punctuation, but the sentence or clause carries on over into the next line, as in
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love
Where ‘acts / Of kindness’ sees the end of the line mark a pause, mid-flow. We have to keep reading to see what the ‘acts’ were about (kindness and love).
Blank verse and drama
It was for this reason – the closeness of blank verse to the rhythms of everyday English speech – that early English dramatists seized upon it as the perfect verse form for their plays. Probably the very first person to take the form Surrey had invented for his translation of an epic poem and use it in a play was, actually, two people: Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, whose joint-authored tragedy Gorboduc was first performed in 1561.
In the ensuing decades, as the English theatre really developed in London, writers such as Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, and, of course, William Shakespeare all used blank verse in their plays. It’s little wonder that blank verse continued to be used in poetry afterwards, given its pliability and versatility. John Milton used it for his great epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), rejecting rhyme because it limits poetic expression and is not as musical or aesthetically pleasing as it likes to think it is (we’re paraphrasing Milton here). Many of Tennyson’s great dramatic monologues of the 1830s, such as ‘Ulysses’, use the form of blank verse; after all, a dramatic monologue is like a scene from a play, and so that very nineteenth-century form harked back to the golden age of English verse drama when Marlowe and Shakespeare had unleashed the potential of blank verse on the London stage.