Blank verse (also called unrhymed iambic pentameter) is a literary term for unrhymed lines of ten syllables, each with the even-numbered syllables bearing the accents, which was commonly used in theater during the Shakespearean era. Blank verse is considered best for dramatic verse in English since it is the verse form closest to the rhythms of everyday English speech and has been the dominant verse form of English drama and narrative poetry since the mid-Sixteenth Century. Such verse is blank in rhyme only, having a definite meter, although variations in meter are sometimes used. As Milton explained in his 1667 preface to Paradise Lost:
The Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in larger Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter.
The term is originally from the French blanc, meaning “white”— in the sense of “left white” or “requiring something to be filled in.”
Uses of Blank Verse in Literature
The literary term, blank verse, was first used by the Earl of Surrey, Henry Howard, in 1540 in his translation of Books II and III of The Aeneid of Virgil, but previously had been adapted by Italian Renaissance writers from classical sources. It was used a great deal for reflective and narrative poems until the late Seventeenth Century. In the latter Nineteenth Century, the English romantic poets—Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats—made use of blank verse. Later yet, the English poets, Robert Browning and Lord Tennyson, and the American poets, Robinson and Frost, employed it for less lofty themes, leading its use to become more colloquial in tone.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus’s speech to Hippolyta explaining the lovers’ rearrangement of couples is written in blank verse:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth,
from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
(Act 5, scene 1 : lines 12 – 17)
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