Page images
[ocr errors]

this gorgeous orchid-jungle of words that he forgets what they are all about. The closer phrasing and shorter clauses of Chaucer and William Morris, which tend to check such flights, make safer guides for the beginner with the couplet form.



Blank verse is a term sometimes used broadly for any kind of unrimed verse, including lyrics with unrimed stanzas composed of regular or irregular line patterns, and even for free verse.” More properly the term blank verse is applied only to unrimed iambic pentameter. Blank verse in this latter sense) holds the place of greatest distinction among English verse forms. During the three and a half centuries in which it has been in use it has been made capable of great flexibility and of variation in many directions.

Blank verse was first used in English by the Earl of Surrey! in his translation of the fourth book of the Æneid (1557). It was adopted by the authors of Gorboduc (1562) as the form for the earliest English tragedy. After being further used by Kyd and Peele, and brought to a high state of perfection by Marlowe, it became the great medium of dramatic expression for Shakespeare and the whole brilliant constellation of his contemporaries. The Jacobean and Caroline dramatists continued to use it even in most of their comedies of humors and manners. After the dramatic interregnum it ceased to be generally used for comedy, and during the earlier period of Dryden was displaced in tragedy, for a time, by the heroic couplet. Later, Dryden and Otway restored the use of it in tragedy. Milton, by writing Paradise Lost (1667) in blank verse, made it the form for subsequent English epics and much narrative verse. In the eighteenth century, Aikenside, Thompson, Cowper, and others employed it for long reflective and descriptive poems. Through the

1 It is generally supposed to have been suggested to him by the versi sciolti of the Italians.

same period it was still used in the classic tragedies of Addison and Johnson and the romantic work of the type of Home's Douglas. In the nineteenth century, the form has appeared at its best in the reflective poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, and in some of the long narrative poems of Keats, Arnold, Tennyson, Browning, and Swinburne. Verse drama in the last century is at its best in Byron's Manfred and Shelley's Cenci, though there are interesting attempts by Lytton, Knowles, Talfourd, Tennyson, and Browning. Among recent poets, one of the most distinctive in his use of blank verse is William Butler Yeats. There are other less original examples among the poems or plays of Laurence Binyon, Alfred Noyes, Stephen Phillips, and Robert Bridges.

A historical survey of the use of blank verse shows that it has been the medium for the most widely diversified types of poetic thought. The greatness of the form lies in its extraordinary flexibility, its fitness for varied moods, and its yielding to distinctive treatment in individual hands. Through it have been perfectly expressed the rage of Lear, the advice of Polonius, the out-nighting of Lorenzo and Jessica, the sublime horrors of Milton's hell, the finding of Excaliber, the delirium of Browning's Bishop, and the easy colloquialism of Mr. Sludge.?

? For examples from which to study different types of blank verse the reader may find the following suggestions useful. Three stages in Shakespearian use may be studied by comparing Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and the Tempest. For interesting modern dramatic verse, Browning's Blot in the Scutcheon, Yeats's Land of Heart's Desire, Richard Hovey's Launcelot and Guinevere, and William Vaughn Moody's Firebringer are good examples. The dramatic monologues, Andrea del Sarto, The Bishop Orders his Tomb, Mr. Sludge the Medium, as well as The Ring and the Book, show what variety and individuality Browning could give the form. Tennyson's Ulysses and Rossetti's Last Confession are not to be overlooked if one is interested in blank verse monologues. Examples of narrative and descriptive blank verse useful for models may be found in the first four books of Paradise Lost, in Keats's Hyperion, Shelley's Alastor, Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum, Tennyson's In all these uses of blank verse the differences in type and in individual practice are made possible by the wide diversity in phrasing of which the form is capable. Phrasing, as has been explained in the discussions in Chapters II and VI, deals with the relation of the prose rhythm of the words with the superimposed verse rhythm and line structure. The technical difference between the lines uttered by Lear on the heath and those in which Thomson describes an April shower is the difference in the degree of conflict between the two forces of prose and verse rhythm. The elements of this struggle have been discussed in the first part of this book in the consideration of light stress, extra accent, and other rhythmical changes, as well as of enjambment and the shifting of the cesura.

The simplest conflict in the matter of phrasing is that brought about by the introduction of light stresses. Compare the two following passages in this respect.

That to each force of foreign princes' power
Whom vantage of our wretched state may move
By sudden arms to gain so rich a realm,

And to the proud and greedy mind at home 5 Whom blinded lust to reign leads to aspire,

Lo, Britain realm is left an open prey,
A present spoil by conquest to ensue!
Who seeth not now how many rising minds

Do feed their thoughts with hope to reach a realm?
10 And who will not by force attempt to win
So great a gain, that hope persuades to have?

(Gorboduc, V, ii.)
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love;
On courtiers' knees, that dream on curtsies straight;

O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees; Idylls, Stephen Phillips's Marpessa, and Alfred Noyes's Drake. Among the best examples of reflective blank verse are Coleridge's Nightingale and Hymn before Sunrise, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, and Bryant's Thanatopsis.



O'er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.
Sometime she gallops o'er a courtier's nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig's tail
Tickling a parson's nose as a lies asleep,
Then dreams he of another benefice.
Sometime she driveth o'er a soldier's neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fathom deep.

(Romeo and Juliet, I, iv.)


The two passages are composed very largely of end-stopped lines. The one from Gorboduc has absolutely no lines of irregular rhythm and that from Romeo and Juliet has but four (8, 10, 11, 13), three of which (8, 10, 13) may be made regular by reading them as pentameters with light stresses instead of as "heroic tetrameters." But the great difference between the two selections is that the scarcity of light stresses in the first-only eight in eleven lines-gives it an almost perfect and unrelieved iambic phrasing and iambic rhythm. Such monotonous lines as

Do feed their thoughts with hope to reach a realm,


So great a gain, that hope persuades to have,

with their complete coincidence of phrasing and rhythm, nowhere occur in the Shakespearian passage, which has twenty light stresses in fifteen lines. A considerable proportion—at least one out of five in the long run-of the stresses in blank verse must be light in order to avoid the first cause of monotony which besets a crude versifier. The wastes of dull verse through the three dreary parts of Henry * See above, pp. 177 ff.

« PreviousContinue »