Guide to Literary Terms

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Free Verse

Free verse - verse that lacks regular meter and line length but relies upon natural rhythms. It is free from fixed metrical patterns, but does reveal the cadences that result from alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. The form is thought to add force to thought and expression. While giving an address on May 17, 1935, Robert Frost explained, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Free came through Middle English from the Old English freo, meaning “free.” The etymology of verse is discussed under that listing.

Milton was experimenting with free verse in Samson Agonistes, and Walt Whitman used it in his “After the Sea-ship”:

After the sea-ship, after the whistling winds,
After the white-grey sails taut to their spars and ropes,
Below, a myriad myriad waves hastening, lifting up their necks,
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of the ship,
Waves of the ocean bubbling and gurgling, blithely prying,
Waves, undulating waves, liquid, uneven, emulous waves,
Toward that whirling current, laughing and buoyant, with curves,
Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displace the surface . . .
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