T. S. Eliot said it didn’t exist. Robert Frost likened it to playing tennis with the net down. T. E. Hulme thought it was one way in which English verse might reinvent itself for the modern age. Walt Whitman is credited with inventing it. What is free verse? And what’s the difference between ‘free verse’ and vers libre? In this post, we’re going to offer a short introduction to the poetic form known as free verse, and introduce some of the debates surrounding the idea of ‘free’ verse.
First, the simple, concise definition: free verse is verse that does not rhyme and has no regular rhythm or metre. So, for instance, the following short poem by T. E. Hulme (1883-1917), arguably the first modern English poet, is free:
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.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
This poem, titled ‘Autumn’, was written in 1908 and is an example of free verse. Why? There are two chief reasons. First, rhyme – or rather, the lack of it. If we look at the line endings, we can see that none of the words rhyme: night, abroad, hedge, farmer, and so on (good luck finding a rhyme for ‘children’!). Second, rhythm – or what, in the field of literary analysis of poetry, is called metre (or, if you’re in the US, meter). Metre (or meter) is the ground plan for the rhythm of a poem. Hulme’s ‘Autumn’ doesn’t have a regular metre, because its rhythms vary: we get nine syllables and four heavy stresses in the first line, just four syllables and two heavy stresses in the second, and so on. Compare Hulme’s poem with this from Joyce Kilmer:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
This poem, simply titled ‘Trees’, is not in free verse. Its two-line stanzas or couplets are rhymed, for one, so that ‘see’ and ‘tree’ rhyme, as do ‘prest’ and ‘breast’, and so on. What’s more, there is a regular rhythm or metre to the poem: ‘I think that I shall ne-ver see / A bill-board love-ly as a tree.’ Each alternate syllable is stressed, so we get eight syllables and four heavy stresses per line, with the heavy stresses being on the even syllables.
So, free verse is poetry that doesn’t rhyme and doesn’t have a regular rhythm or metre. It’s worth pointing out a common error which many people fall prey to, which is that ‘free verse’ is not the same as ‘blank verse’. This is an important point, as the two are often confused. Blank verse is unrhymed, like free verse, but unlike free verse, it has a regular metre: iambic pentameter, as in these lines 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). So these lines cannot be described as free verse. They are, instead, blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Who invented free verse?
Who invented free verse? One of the people credited with inventing it is Walt Whitman (1819-92; pictured right), the pioneering American poet whose Leaves of Grass contains many sprawling, exuberant lines of verse, many of which don’t rhyme. Here’s a short example of Whitman’s free verse:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
As with Hulme’s ‘Autumn’, there’s no rhyme here (although note the way ‘hold’ delicately holds ‘soul’ within its grasp at the end), and there’s no regular rhythm or metre either. But where did Whitman get the idea from? His decision to write in free verse may have been influenced by the Biblical Psalms, which can be read here. (The eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart also wrote a wonderful poem which prefigures Whitman’s psalm-like free verse; rather pleasingly, a section of it is about his cat.) What is certain is that Whitman’s influence ranged far and wide in nineteenth-century poetry, and he was read widely in France.
Free verse and vers libre
In France, Whitman helped to inspire the French version of free verse, vers libre (which literally means ‘free verse’), which was pioneered in the 1870s and 1880s by the poet Gustave Kahn, the Symbolist Jules Laforgue, and others. An early example, from the early 1870s, is the short poem ‘Marine’ by Arthur Rimbaud.
Kahn was name-checked by T. E. Hulme, the author of ‘Autumn’, in his 1908 ‘Lecture on Modern Poetry’, which is one of the most important documents in twentieth-century poetry because of the almost revolutionary innovations Hulme suggests new poets introduce into their work. Chief among these is vers libre or free verse. Hulme writes:
The new technique was first definitely stated by Kahn. It consisted in a denial of a regular number of syllables as the basis of versification. The length of the line is long and short, oscillating with the images used by the poet; it follows the contours of his thoughts and is free rather than regular; to use a rough analogy, it is clothes made to order, rather than ready-made clothes. This is a very bald statement of it, and I am not concerned here so much with French poetry as with English. The kind of verse I advocate is not the same as vers-libre, I merely use the French as an example of the extraordinary effect that an emancipation of verse can have on poetic activity.
‘Clothes made to order, rather than ready-made clothes’: this strikes at the essence of what makes vers libre so useful for modern poets. Rather than having to follow a prescribed structure, the poet can dictate the structure themselves. For one thing, this removes the need for ‘filler’ in poetry: where previously we might have found such redundant formations as ‘my feet did walk’ (rather than just ‘my feet walked’), now the poet could do away with such needless padding, which was only really there so the verse line contained all the right beats in all the right places. This became a central tenet of imagism, a short-lived movement founded off the back of Hulme’s teaching, which – as the name suggests – placed the image at the heart of the poem, with its structure being dictated by the image.
But until now, we’ve been working on the assumption that free verse is straightforward. But T. S. Eliot didn’t think so. In fact, he went so far as to say that free verse doesn’t exist. In an influential 1917 essay, ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’, Eliot argued that there is ‘no freedom in art’, and so no truly great poem can be written in verse that is truly ‘free’. What looks ‘free’ is actually tightly controlled by the poet, even if it doesn’t conform to a regular rhyme scheme or metre. Indeed, all of the good ‘free’ verse that’s been written in English, Eliot argued, has been achieved by either starting with an established metre (such as the previously mentioned iambic pentameter, for example) and withdrawing from it, or by starting with no form (so completely free) and working towards an established metre. If we return to Hulme’s ‘Autumn’, we can see that this is true just from considering the first two lines:
A touch of cold in the au-tumn night –
I walked a-broad …
The italics show where the heavy stresses fall in Hulme’s lines. Although it’s not a perfect fit (‘in the’ gives us two unstressed syllables one after the other), the rhythm of these lines largely follows the iambic metre, where you have one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, or (if you prefer) a light stress followed by a heavy one, e.g. ‘A touch’. What Hulme has done is give us four such feet in the first line (iambic tetrameter), and then just two feet in the second line (iambic dimeter). We can extend such an analysis to the rest of Hulme’s poem, noting where he sticks to such a metre and where he departs from it. In short, then, Hulme’s poem is free verse, but we should always consider how ‘free’ free verse really is.
William Carlos Williams, another prominent modernist poet of the twentieth century who wrote in free verse, didn’t like to call it ‘free’ verse either: he invented the term ‘variable foot’ to describe his own approach to poetic metre. He, too, writes poems that lack a regular rhyme scheme or metre, but how ‘free’ are they? Here’s an example of his work, and one of the most famous poems written in free verse. It looks free, but this doesn’t mean there’s no artist’s control at work.
What is free verse? There are two answers to this question. One is the simple answer – it’s poem without rhyme or regular metre – and one is the more complex, knotty answer. Although ‘free verse’ exists, we should be wary of ignoring the powers of versification the poet has used, even in the most seemingly ‘free’ compositions, and still consider how a poem calls up particular effects regarding line endings, rhythm, and so on.