Secret Library

The Invention of Free Verse: Tennyson’s ‘Semele’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses an early Tennyson poem

Who invented ‘free verse’? Walt Whitman (1819-92) often gets the credit, although his decision to write in free verse – unrhymed poetry without a regular metre or rhythm – may have been influenced by the Biblical Psalms. Before Whitman, 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, where ‘free verse’ gave rise to vers libre, a kind of unrhymed poetry less exuberant and more staid than Whitman’s, but similarly untrammelled by rhyme or fixed patterns.

But as with many innovations on this sort of scale, one poet can hardly be given the credit for ‘inventing’ free verse. And a little-known poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) – Whitman’s contemporary, but on the other side of the Atlantic – provides another early example of the kind of verse that would become ubiquitous in the twentieth century.

Tennyson wrote his poem ‘Semele’ in around 1835. It’s little more than a fragment which Tennyson never published but which the poet’s son thought ‘too fine to be lost’ and duly published after his father’s death.

Semele was the mortal mother of the god Dionysus, whom she conceived by the god Zeus. The goddess Hera was jealous of her, and persuaded Semele to ask Zeus to appear to her in the same divine majesty as he appeared to Hera. Zeus had agreed to grant Semele whatever she asked for, so he appeared to her, thunderbolts and all, and Semele was promptly burnt to death.

Here is Tennyson’s poem about the story, which, like many of Tennyson’s great poems of the 1830s, is a dramatic monologue, spoken by Semele herself:

I wish’d to see Him. Who may feel
His light and love? He comes.
The blast of Godhead bursts the doors,
His mighty hands are twined
About the triple forks, and when He speaks
The crown of sunlight shudders round
Ambrosial temples, and aloft.
Fluttering thro’ Elysian air,
His green and azure mantles float in wavy
Foldings, and melodious thunder
Wheels in circles.
But thou, my son, who shalt be born
When I am ashes, to delight the world —
Now with measured cymbal-clash
Moving on to victory;
Now on music-rolling orbs,
A sliding throne, voluptuously
Panther-drawn,
To throbbings of the thunderous gong.
And melody o’ the merrily-blowing flute;
Now with troops of clamorous revellers,
Merrily, merrily,
Rapidly, giddily,
Rioting, triumphing
Bacchanalians,
Rushing in cadence,
All in order,
Plunging down the viney valleys —

And there the fragment ends. A. A. Markley, in Stateliest Measures: Tennyson and the Literature of Greece and Rome, observes that ‘Semele’ has been almost entirely ignored by Tennyson scholars. Yet for Markley, this fragment demonstrates the Victorian poet’s skilful reworking of classical myth as well as any of his more famous dramatic monologues (such as ‘Ulysses’ or ‘Tithonus’).

As so often in his poems, Tennyson weaves in a number of details associated with the myth: the ‘viney valleys’ summon the wine that is such a crucial part of Dionysus’ identity. But I think there’s another reason why ‘Semele’ is important, and that is its atypical form. Most of Tennyson’s other dramatic monologues from this period are written in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter. But any pretence of having a regular metre is quickly dropped from ‘Semele’ once we get more than a few lines in. The first four lines follow a pattern of alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines, but even these are unrhymed. Then, in the fifth line, we get iambic pentameter, followed by several lines of tetrameter. Later on, Tennyson abandons any attempt to stick to a regular line length, although – as T. S. Eliot advised was the case in all free verse worthy of the name of ‘poetry’ – some ‘ghost’ of the tetrameter form remains throughout, with Tennyson continually withdrawing from and then returning to it.

But it is still free verse, making ‘Semele’ not only an oddity among Tennyson’s works but also some way ahead of the vogue for free verse, which hadn’t even become established in America yet (Whitman’s Leaves of Grass would not appear until 1855). Tennyson appears to be experimenting with something looser and more free-formed in ‘Semele’, but he never published his efforts. Viewed in context, it shows Tennyson stumbling upon a new way of writing poetry which he perhaps considered too formless or fragmentary for publication. For people interested in the development of free verse, it remains little-known, but deserves its place in the history of this new, and now ubiquitous, way of writing.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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