Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use

Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use

Language: English

Pages: 312

ISBN: 0821417584

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—is familiar to many as the form of Shakespeare’s plays and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Since its first use in English in the sixteenth century, it has provided poets with a powerful and versatile metrical line, enabling the creation of some of the most memorable poems of Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Frost, Stevens, Wilbur, Nemerov, Hecht, and a host of others. A protean meter, blank verse lends itself to lyric, dramatic, narrative, and meditative modes; to epigram as well as to epic. Blank Verse is the first book since 1895 to offer a detailed study of the meter’s technical features and its history, as well as its many uses. Robert B. Shaw gives ample space and emphasis to the achievements of modern and postmodern poets working in the form, an area neglected until now by scholarship.

With its compact but inclusive survey of more than four centuries of poetry, Blank Verse is filled with practical advice for poets of our own day who may wish to attempt the form or enhance their mastery of it. Enriched with numerous examples, Shaw’s discussions of verse technique are lively and accessible, inviting not only to apprentice poets but to all readers of poetry.

Shaw’s approach should reassure those who find prosody intimidating, while encouraging specialists to think more broadly about how traditional poetic forms can be taught, learned, practiced, and appreciated in the twenty-first century. Besides filling a conspicuous gap in literary history, Blank Verse points the way ahead for poets interested in exploring blank verse and its multitude of uses.













This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land— Dear for her reputation through the world— Is now leased out—I die pronouncing it— Like to a tenement or pelting farm. (57–60) The whole sentence with its long-delayed predicate is sustained over twenty lines. This kind of catalogue structure could be numbing; but here the richness of language and the variation in length of individual phrases works against the threatening beads-on-a-string effect. Still, compared with the passages from Hamlet

that is one of the leading characteristics (and advantages) of blank verse. This affects sound regardless of what we have been calling the tone of the passage (by which we meant its implied as well as its stated range of emotions). If we momentarily abstract the sound of the lines from the meaning of the words composing them—and it is difficult to do this more than momentarily—we glimpse, as the passage proceeds, a special quality of blank verse. Freedom and fixity are both at play in the form.

lighter-than-air subject. The most favorable way to construe them is as sequences of rhythm overriding the structure of this or that single line—as Thoreau’s attempt to achieve an elasticity in the meter that many another poet has pursued. A more graceful use of enjambment might have served the purpose less problematically. Emerson’s metrical liberties are sometimes traceable to literary models. In “Hamatreya,” he recasts Milton’s experiments in homely New England terms. Where Milton fills a line

In one another, and had gone to sleep Of its own stupid lack of understanding, Or broken its white neck of mushroom stuff Short off, and died against the window-pane.’ (159–66) Shaw ch3:Layout 1 1/19/07 5:42 PM Page 99 Blank Verse and Modernism 99 But his bias, and his genius, is for compression. One of his finest narratives, “‘Out, Out—’” takes only thirty-four lines to tell of a boy’s death in a farm accident, its brevity emphasizing better than any extended commentary the bleak view of

Verse and Modernism x x / x / x / x / 109 / And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair, / / x / / x x / x x / Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime. x / x / x / x / x x / And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain! (9–13) Here there is nothing as thoroughgoing as some of Thomas’s metrical bends, though there is an emphatic heaviness to the stressing in the first three lines (even some of the unstressed monosyllables like “face” and “bags” seem heavy for

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