Free verse, poetry organized to the cadences of speech and image patterns rather than according to a regular metrical scheme. It is “free” only in a relative sense. It does not have the steady, abstract rhythm of traditional poetry; its rhythms are based on patterned elements such as sounds, words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, rather than on the traditional prosodic units of metrical feet per line. Free verse, therefore, eliminates much of the artificiality and some of the aesthetic distance of poetic expression and substitutes a flexible formal organization suited to the modern idiom and more casual tonality of the language.

Although the term is loosely applied to the poetry of Walt Whitman and even earlier experiments with irregular metres, it was originally a literal translation of vers libre (q.v.), the name of a movement that originated in France in the 1880s. Free verse became current in English poetics in the early 20th century. The first English-language poets to be influenced by vers libre, notably T.E. Hulme, F.S. Flint, Richard Aldington, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot, were students of French poetry. The Imagist movement, started in England in 1912 by Aldington, Pound, Flint, and Hilda Doolittle (“H.D.”), was concerned with more than versification, but one of its principles was “to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.” Almost from the beginning, the free-verse movement split into two groups, one led by Amy Lowell and a more formal one led by Pound. Eliot’s early experimentations with free verse influenced the loosening of formal metrical structures in English-language poetry. Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens all wrote some variety of free verse; the versification of Williams and Moore most closely resembles that of the vers libre poets of France.

Blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, the preeminent dramatic and narrative verse form in English and also the standard form for dramatic verse in Italian and German. Its richness and versatility depend on the skill of the poet in varying the stresses and the position of the caesura (pause) in each line, in catching the shifting tonal qualities and emotional overtones of the language, and in arranging lines into thought groups and paragraphs.

Adapted from unrhymed Greek and Latin heroic verse, blank verse was introduced in 16th-century Italy along with other classical metres. The Italian humanist Francesco Maria Molza attempted the writing of consecutive unrhymed verse in 1514 in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. Other experiments in 16th-century Italy were the tragedy Sofonisba (written 1514–15) by Gian Giorgio Trissino, and the didactic poem Le api (1539) by Giovanni Rucellai. Rucellai was the first to use the term versi sciolti, which became translated into English as “blank verse.” It soon became the standard metre of Italian Renaissance drama, used in such major works as the comedies of Ludovico Ariosto, L’Aminta of Torquato Tasso, and the Il pastor fido of Battista Guarini.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, introduced the metre, along with the sonnet and other Italian humanist verse forms, to England in the early 16th century. Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton used blank verse for the first English tragic drama, Gorboduc (first performed 1561), and Christopher Marlowe developed its musical qualities and emotional power in Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, and Edward II. William Shakespeare transformed the line and the instrument of blank verse into the vehicle for the greatest English dramatic poetry. In his early plays, he combined it with prose and a 10-syllable rhymed couplet; he later employed a blank verse dependent on stress rather than on syllabic length. Shakespeare’s poetic expression in his later plays, such as Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, and The Winter’s Tale, is supple, approximating the rhythms of speech, yet capable of conveying the subtlest human delight, grief, or perplexity.

After a period of debasement, blank verse was restored to its former grandeur by John Milton in Paradise Lost (1667). Milton’s verse is intellectually complex, yet flexible, using inversions, Latinized words, and all manner of stress, line length, variation of pause, and paragraphing to gain descriptive and dramatic effect. In the 18th century, James Thomson used blank verse in his long descriptive poem The Seasons, and Edward Young’s Night Thoughts uses it with power and passion. Later, William Wordsworth wrote his autobiography of the poetic spirit, The Prelude (completed 1805–06; published 1850), in blank verse; Percy Bysshe Shelley used it in his drama The Cenci (1819), as did John Keats in Hyperion (1820). The extreme flexibility of blank verse can be seen in its range from the high tragedy of Shakespeare to the low-keyed, conversational tone of Robert Frost in A Masque of Reason (1945).

Blank verse was established in German drama by Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan der Weise (1779). Examples of its use are found in the writings of Goethe, Schiller, and Gerhart Hauptmann. It was also used extensively in Swedish, Russian, and Polish dramatic verse.