10 Essential Verse Forms Everyone Should Know

By Dr Oliver Tearle

Learning the different verse forms that poets have used for centuries might seem like a daunting task, but in this article we’ve picked ten of the most popular and enduring verse forms, and offer a short introduction to each of them. So, if you’ve always wanted to know more about different verse forms, and would like to be able to tell a sonnet from a ballad, look no further.

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What is a Villanelle?

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle introduces one of the most distinctive, and contentious, verse forms

‘What is a villanelle?’ is a question that anyone who encounters the word is likely to be stumped by, since, unlike a sonnet or a limerick, its precise structure and form are not widely known about. A villanelle remains a more specialised and lesser-known verse form alongside its more famous cousins. Yet some of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, including W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Sylvia Plath, all wrote villanelles. What is a villanelle, and why would anyone want to write one?

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10 of the Best Sestinas in English

Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle

The sestina form is thought to have been created by Provencal troubadours – and possibly by one specific troubadour, Arnaut Daniel – in around 1200. However, it didn’t arrive in English literature until the late 1570s, when both Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, poets at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, used it … and then sestinas disappeared from English verse until the late nineteenth century. Since then, the sestina has remained a part of Anglophone poetry.

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What is Blank Verse?

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).

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