Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use by Robert B. Shaw
(Ohio University Press, 2007)
In this age of free verse and language writing, why a book on blank verse -- isn’t that sort of a bit antiquated. Shaw says no! and in his preface states: “The twentieth century and later receives more expansive treatment than earlier periods because this part of the story has been overlooked by scholarship.”(ix)
So what is this book all about? There is no better way of responding to that question than by quoting the words of the writer: “this book undertakes two tasks: to study the characteristics of the poetic form we call blank verse, and to study the achievements of poets who have used it from its first emergence up to our own day…While the first and last chapters concentrate on practical considerations for writers and readers of blank verse, the middle chapters, which are arranged as a historical survey, in fact carry on the discussion of technique…”(ix)
Early into the first chapter ‘The Sound of Blank Verse’, Shaw has this to say: “The lazy way to think about blank verse is to view it as a compromise between rhyming metrical verse on the one hand and free verse on the other. A poet who devotes serious attention to these three forms will quickly realize that blank verse is something more than a halfway house between rhyme and open form. It has characteristics that give it a unique set of capabilities, setting it distinctly apart from either of these alternatives.”(3) On the next page, he qualifies those characteristics: “Freedom and fixity are both at play in the form. Unchecked and unsegmented by patterns of rhyme, it can accommodate prodigious flows of utterances; in that sense it is freer. At the same time, unlike free verse, it has a set length of line and recurring number of beats, and while poets in practice may allow themselves flexible rhythms and even occasional metrical substitutions, these attain expressive power precisely because the standard iambic pentameter is there as a basis, a point to vary from.”(4)
As Wallace Stevens and James Merrill, et al, have shown, there is no restriction as to subject matter applicable to the use of blank verse: “Just as this form diversified in terms of mode -- moving successively from drama through epic to other narrative, meditative, descriptive, and lyric types -- so is has proven able to deal with subjects decorous or rough, exalted or mundane.”(5) Shaw does cite certain restrictions on the use of blank verse, such as “Any kind of free verse that depends on visual effects is, of course, one of these untransposable forms. This would include not only the freewheeling typewriter art of E.E. Cummings but many short-lined poems by William Carlos Williams and others, in which line groupings, enjambments, and deliberate fragmentation contribute importantly to the ultimate meaning.”(7-8) He does indicate that, in certain circumstances, blank verse can be substituted for metrical verse acknowledging that “good blank-verse sonnets exist”(8) [for an entire book see Karen Volkman’s Nomina] although he seems doubtful as to its effectiveness in very short poems: “Without room to display many of the devices that, for it, supply distinctive auditory and structural functions, the few lines may seem fragmentary or tentative jottings rather than finished works of art.”(9)
Following discussion of the relationship between prose and the iambic pentameter of blank verse, and of the rudiments of scanning such lines, Shaw enters the important discussion of the distinction between meter and rhythm, stating “Rather than adhering in lockstep fashion to the paradigm, well-written lines of iambic pentameter will correspond to it in more relative ways, generally following the fluctuations between weaker and stronger syllables, but doing so with ever-shifting modulations. The difference between weak and strong will be at some points emphatic, while at other points it will be less pronounced.”(16) Extending this discussion to metrical substitution, he says “Iambic pentameter, as used by the masters of blank verse, is not skeleton alone but muscle and tendon, capable of bending and stretching to give adequate mobility to language and to the thoughts language embodies.”(18) Shaw completes the chapter with a flurry of poems demonstrating the versatility of blank verse.
The next chapter provided the historical context for the invention and use of blank verse ‘Before The Twentieth Century’. It opens with a lament regarding the state of poetry at the time of Chaucer and the inability of poets of that time to handle the decasyllabic line which Chaucer used so adeptly:
The invention of blank verse in England is part of a larger story of the rescue of poetry from this state of prosodic anarchy. Here, too, some parts of the story remain mysterious. The poets who smoothed out the crimps in the decasyllabic line may not have been aiming at the accentual-syllabic line that we would call iambic pentameter. It is possible that they were trying simply to emulate the regular syllable count of verse written in Romance languages such as French and Italian -- verse that is scanned without regard to accent. (23)
The first use of English blank verse took place around 1540 when Henry Howard translated books 2 and 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid into English. These translations eventually found themselves published in Tottel’s justly famed book of 1557 which has come to be known as Tottel’s Miscellany. The Aeneid itself was written in unrhymed hexameter and a precursor to Henry’s translation took place in Italy where it had been translated into ten or eleven syllable unrhymed lines. The next major development took place in drama when Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, in writing the play Gorbuduc, attempted to imitate the Latin unrhymed classical meter of Seneca. Shaw justly criticizes these early users of blank verse for their stiffness and didacticism heralding Christopher Marlow as the saviour of English drama: “Marlowe was the first playwright able to make blank verse an effective medium for drama.” (37).
Then along came Shakespeare whose “ability to overcome the naggingly evident pause at the line break that proved so persistent for his precursors is a point of major importance.”(41) After discussing Symonds’ and Saintsbury’s response to him, Shaw explains the importance of Shakespeare as follows:
Shakespeare indeed ‘thawed the ice’ in fashioning his lines. In his work we find ourselves reading for the first time iambic pentameter not by increments of a line or two at a time but by verse paragraphs that sustain themselves over unpredictable spans, paradoxically challenging as well as satisfying the demands of the meter. Shakespeare does this through technical dexterity applied in a number of ways.(41)
Shakespeare revelled in such devices as enjambment and feminine endings which “blurs the boundary of the line and, interestingly, it [i.e. feminine ending] seems to supply a carryover effect whether or not lines are endstopped”(42). But, as Shaw points out, these two techniques are not enough: “What is crucial, though, is not a particular technical device, however deftly used, but an ear for extended, often asymmetrical patterns of sound, and a rhetorical control that can negotiate complex alliances between meter and grammar.”(43) As much as these effects at the ends of lines vastly improved the reading of iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s greatest gift, as Shaw points out through an extremely effective analysis of several examples, is the way he manipulates internal meter helping to explain why “Shakespeare’s plays continue to be staged...even with the difficulties presented by a sometimes obscure diction and numerous obsolete usages [because] an audience is still able to hear the dialogue as actual speech supported by recognizable feelings.”(47) The place where Shaw’s analysis falters is in his discussion of stichomythia “inherited from Seneca…is a dialogue in which a single line plays off the language of the first in some way.”(48) The problem is that the examples he cites to reflect this are all in rhyme or repeat the last word of the preceding line. The interesting aspect of the examples cited is the use of parallel construction. But can it truly be said that lines repeating the same last word are truly blank verse or just a modification of rhyme. Shaw ends this discussion of the medieval use of blank verse by citing examples of Shakespeare’s compatriots Ben Johnson and John Webster before moving on to Milton.
Shaw says of Milton’s Paradise Lost that it “was so successful in making blank verse an institution that it is with some effort that we remind ourselves that Milton’s choice of the meter for a long epic poem was regarded by himself and by others as revolutionary. Verse narratives in English had typically been written in rhymed couplets or in various kinds of stanzas.”(51) The revolutionary nature of this was doubly so. At the time Milton was writing, at the time that the Restoration was in full flower, blank verse had fallen out of favour even in the theatre as a result of the proselytizing of John Dryden who championed the use of heroic couplets or, something new on the scene, prose. To show how revolutionary it was, at the time of the second edition in 1674, Milton included a preface explaining the lack of rhyme and extolling the superior virtues of blank verse by referring back to the classical texts of Homer and Virgil.
Describing Milton’s blank verse, Shaw says it, “is challenging to describe (and even more, to imitate) because it exhibits so much painstaking control of minute detail while achieving an effect of vastness and profundity -- something far different from lapidary refinements.”(53) He goes on to describe Milton’s line as “likely to seem metrically austere. Feminine endings are much less frequent than in dramatic verse;”(53) indicating that they are left primarily to the latter books of Paradise Lost. He goes on to demonstrate the various and varied metrical substitutions used by Milton. In places, Milton uses internal rhyme to create meter where none would otherwise exist. Shaw also points out Milton’s use of elision: “Any page of Paradise Lost, except in a drastically (and unwisely) modernized edition, will display its share of apostrophes; some pages are peppered with them.”(55-6) Again, Shaw concludes this section with excellent examples and discussion of Milton’s prosody.
In the next section, Shaw laments the decrepit state blank verse falls into in the eighteenth-century. He cites examples of James Thompson and Edward Young to make his point. Then, salvation! -- or some semblance of it. The arrival of William Cowper provides some relief: “There are numerous Miltonic turns of phrase in The Task (1785), and yet in reading it we are more likely to notice anticipations of Wordsworth than reverberations of Milton.”(63) Shaw congratulates Cowper on discovering new directions for blank verse: “He managed much more smoothly than his immediate precursors to integrate precise description with generalizing discussion. One thing he should have noted, but doesn’t, regarding Cowper’s style is the meandering caesura which adds considerable interest to the verse. He ends his expurgation of Cowper and The Task by concluding that it “has undoubted importance in having shown how the volume of Milton’s verse could be turned down to make it suitable for less-than-epic occasions.”(64)
He concludes his examination of the events leading up to the twentieth-century with examinations of the nineteenth referring to Coleridge and Wordsworth (Romantic blank verse) and Browning and Tennyson (Victorian blank verse). Of Coleridge, he refers to the ‘Conversational Poems’ as “demonstrat[ing] that blank verse allows for naturalistic gestures that mimic the spontaneity of speech.”(65) And of Wordsworth, “The conversational note is even more pronounced”(65) and quotes from Wordsworth that “a poet ‘is a man speaking to men’ and, further and much more controversially to his time, “that there neither is, nor can be, an essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.” Shaw later states that “Not to be noticed as meter, in fact, seems to be a primary aim of Wordsworth’s blank verse.”(65) While commenting on Wordsworth’s occasional “use of prepositions…in stress positions”(66), he seems to overlook the effect of this secondary stress which is to create secondary caesuras making the lines in which they are found novel and interesting. It should also be commented on that, at least in the example he cites, those secondary stresses fall in a place where one could expect the caesura to fall were it not for the earlier incident of them near the beginning of the line.
Shaw briefly examines the work of Bryon, Shelley and Keats from the perspective of a step back from Coleridge and Wordsworth to Milton. He then moves onto the Victorians with the sentence “The early deaths of Byron, Shelley, and Keats left their successors, the Victorian poets of mid-century an open field”(73) saying the “poets found the meter protean in its ability to carry descriptive, meditative, narrative, or dramatic burdens in lengths of all sorts.”(73) Shaw contrasts Tennyson to Browning as follows: “While he, also, aims to define his characters and their situation through individualized voices, his style tends to be loftier. If Browning’s Renaissance painters and assorted scoundrels sometimes have the broad grotesquerie of cartoons, Tennyson’s sometimes seem to have stepped out of a Greek frieze.”(75-6) Shaw concludes this section and his study of pre-twentieth-century blank verse with an examination of some American poets -- Thoreau and Emerson to name two -- who occasionally resorted to this form.
Shaw begins his discussion of ‘Blank Verse and Modernism’ with an examination of some New England poets at the turn of the century including Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost. Of Arlington’s contribution to blank verse, Shaw says that it “was not one of technique but of topical diversity.”(86) Of Frost, he says: “The distinction he makes between strict iambic and loose iambic meter…is useful to keep in mind in regard to his blank verse. Frost certainly wrote rhyming poems that are strict (or strict enough) in their use of iambics, but it is hard to find anything consistently strict in his blank verse: “the meter is loose simply in its varying counts of syllables from line to line even apart from the expressive emphases imposed by speech rhythms on the metrical frame.”(89-90) After analyzing Frost’s ‘The Wood Pile’ and noting the numerous variations within the first several lines including the first, Shaw says that “it does make the poem, like many more of Frost’s, a problematic model of blank verse.”(92). Perhaps this is because this is not blank verse but, rather, free verse – or at least blank verse on the verge of becoming free. Just because a line has ten syllables doesn’t mean that it’s blank verse. Still, Shaw argues that “in reading the poem [in this case, ‘The Fear’] it is likely that we will hear what Frost wants us to hear, the pattern of speech rhythms and those of meter contrasting in ‘strained relation.’”(95) There are many ways to counterpoint a line with this contrast being one. But is Shaw going too far in attempting to join the three lines forming a diagonal in the middle of the poem into one so that he can attempt to find iambic pentameter. If not, then how does he reconcile the broken line before which has eleven syllables but cannot be ended on an unaccented beat. In fact, it is more probable that the line before ends with a spondee – or close to one depending on whether you assign an intermediate stress level to one of the last two words. Shaw never discusses this. Shaw does say, at p. 96, that “less-than-studious readers were sometimes under the impression that Frost was writing free verse, which he abhorred. In a comment for an anthology that in 1942 reprinted “The Death of the Hired Man,” he felt obliged to conclude with this plaintive sentence: “By the way, it’s in blank verse, not free verse.” We are not presented with an analysis of this poem so it is difficult to comment. But poets do not always know what lurks in their subconscious. And this statement of Frost’s certainly doesn’t exhibit an abhorrence towards free verse. The reader needs more convincing in order to be satisfied.
In a fabulous transition where Shaw speaks of Frost having to go over to England in order to get his poetry published and of Frost being introduced to Yeats through the agency of Ezra Pound, Shaw segues into a discussion of Yeats’s blank verse. He compares Yeats to Frost in terms of their temperaments and egos, but then says “our comparison of Yeats with Frost goes only so far. While Yeats worked hard and successfully to make his language less ornate, it rarely approaches the level of colloquialism that is the norm in Frost. It creates an effect of conversation when Yeats so intends, but it is typically what he called in a late poem ‘high talk’.”(103) Not spending much time on Yeats -- or on the Georgians, or Sassoon, or Graves, for that matter -- Shaw concludes this section strongly:
Different as they are in extent and aural quality, the deliberate roughening of the iambic pentameter line that we see in Frost, Yeats, Thomas, and Graves are related in aim. The common aid was to move away from the elaborately musical effects of Tennyson and Swinburne to something convincingly like speech. For conservative modernists such as these, meter was something to be stretched -- sometimes to the breaking point -- but it was not something to be discarded. It remained the recognizable foundation of highly disparate voice exercises.(113)
Through this statement, Shaw salvages his thesis. He appears to be saying that blank verse acts almost like the figured bass in baroque music in that it is the framework upon which the piece rests and from which the elaboration of harmony and dissonance arises. It is in the interplay between the implication of blank verse and the actual figuration that this occurs. And it is this tension that creates interest in these poems. That is something the reader can buy.
There would seem to be some credence and support for this as Shaw quotes favourably from Eliot’s article ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’ (1917): “the most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one.”(124) If we read ‘no form at all’ as ‘free verse’, then the simple one to which it approximates has already been stated: iambic pentameter. Shaw uses lines from Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’ to exemplify this point.
Shaw next turns to Eliot and Pound’s progeny. After examining such as Hart Crane and Allen Tate, he makes the comment that “Breaking the pentameter became more and more an accepted practice in the 1920s and 1930s. Readers in later decades, accustomed to a broad range of techniques in modern verse, could easily fail to notice the deliberate subversion of meter in the sorts of poems here called Websterian because the meter was no longer ‘inevitable’ in unrhymed verse. The boundary between blank and free verse, for many readers and even for some poets, became blurred.”(134)
For the next numerous pages, Shaw proclaims a litany of names of poets of the early to mid-twentieth century, including the requisite share of women poets, none of whom used blank verse frequently but would defer to it once in a while. He does recognize the direction in which he has been going when he states, on p. 152: “Here must end what threatens to become an endless catalogue.” Thank you, brother, for recognizing the error of your ways. The most interesting thing he has to say in these 20 or 30 pages is that the influence which these poets subscribed to oscillated between Frost and Eliot. Unlike the poets, other than Frost and Eliot, he had discussed in the chapter leading up to the twentieth-century, none of these poets had done anything significant or new with blank verse.
Shaw concludes his discussion of modernism and the use of blank verse with a discussion of Wallace Stevens -- and here we see Shaw’s conservatism. Acknowledging that Stevens, in his early poetry such as ‘Sunday Morning’, was a master of this form and “one of the most prolific writers of blank verse among the modernists”(152), he concludes that Stevens’ approach to blank verse has been “first as something to be mastered, then, more dubiously, as something to be modified…Stevens undoubtedly was a master of blank verse when he chose to be; frequently, though, he indulged in metrical manipulations that severely distorted the character of the line.”(160) Earlier, at p. 159, he had stated, “It may seem surprising that such leaps in and out of regular meter do not disrupt the reader’s attention more than they do. Probably much of the credit for this is owing to Steven’s imposingly extended sentences, often overriding the bounds not merely of a few lines but of several tercets.” This is a backhanded compliment for he goes on: “A nagging feeling may eventually accost some readers, a suspicion that the later Stevens is more interested in writing sentences than is shaping lines of verse.” Consider this. Isn’t this pitting the structure of the sentence against the structure of the line? And isn’t this merely an extension, a fantastic extension, of the dissonance that was created by Frost and Eliot in their riding of free verse above the figured bass of the blank? And won’t this playing off of the sentence against the line be that which gives birth to such as Lyn Hejinian much later in the century?
In beginning his chapter ‘After Modernism’, Shaw posts a warning: “In the period we are about to explore (roughly, the late 1930s to the present), many poets have treated iambic pentameter more as a point of departure than as a form consistently sustained.”(161) While examining Randall Jarrell’s ‘Second Air Force’, Shaw comments that Jarrell “juxtaposes perfectly regular lines with wrenched ones…the prosodic disturbances [being] linked to moments of emotional intensity or emphasiz[ing] elements of description. As stresses are shifted and syllables added or subtracted, one senses improvisation more than technical assurance…What we perceive ...is not the continued presence of the ghost of meter, but an almost mechanical pattern of lurches back and forth between a workaday sort of pentameter and whatever weird assault on its contour strikes the poet’s fancy.”(164) Of Delmore Schwartz, he comments “the shifting of stresses and the chopping by commas…completes a subordination of prosody to metaphor…”(165) Here he has brought up an important point and a charge similar to that raised against Donne, Marvell and the other Metaphysical poets of the sixteenth century -- the subordination of sound to sense. But he fails to elaborate on this even though it demands it. This charge is interesting because it was during this period that the Metaphysicals were rediscovered and proved to be a significant influence from Eliot onward. After savaging the poetry of John Berryman and Robert Lowell, he heaps praise on Karl Shapiro for his conservative verse: “When he wants an extreme emphasis he is more likely to cut a line short than to disrupt iambic movement markedly. There is not much of the free use of anapests that we saw in Stevens and others. More of Shapiro’s notable metrical or rhythmic variations are governed by his personal sense of decorum, or appropriateness to the matters at hand.”(174)
There is a point which must be commented on for censure. On p. 179, he states: “Both Hayden and Randall, in their sparse use of the meter, stand in stark contrast with African American formalist poets who preceded them; throughout the nineteenth century blank verse was a widely used form for such poets.” But then, on the next page, he goes on: But we must move on…” This raises the question: Why were African American poets not mentioned in that long litany of names, most being relatively unknown Female American poets, which closed off the previous chapter?
Next for discussion are four poets -- Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and James Merrill. He does an adequate job of discussing the first three. But were they really worth discussing as it is only with Merrill that we enter some truly new territory. As Shaw says, at p. 197: “Merrell alternates blank verse with stanzaic passages…This implies that Merrill is interested not only in expressive modifications of the pentameter line by line, but in balancing off masses of blank verse against other forms within the structure of a single poem.”
Following this, he creates another catalogue. But this time, he unearths some gems hidden within the compost. Not only that, but he reminds us of the blank verse used by Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney and Adrienne Rich.
The conclusion to the chapter ‘After Modernism’ is one of the best parts of the book. Exploring the New Formalists and the New Narrativists, he comments: “There is much of this problematic type of verse to be found in contemporary poetry; some poets who occasionally write in regular meter at other times venture into this rougher terrain, and for some the aim seems to be to treat blank verse not as a form to be embraced but as a point of departure, a theme barely to be discerned through layers of superimposed variations.”(238) Not only do they venture into rougher terrain but, also, into strange ones such as crack houses and James Bond movies.
In his closing chapter, ‘Writing Blank Verse Today’, Shaw launches an appeal for the return to a more regular blank verse. He does have some important things to say, sayings that could be turned into aphorisms as he plays variations on the theme of rhythm and sound “Poetic rhythm can suggest qualities of feeling or imitate movement, but they do so this only in conjunction with the words they animate. In themselves, rhythms and meters are abstract patterns, which is what makes them available for any content the poet desires.”(257) Even those of us who are die-hard free-versers find intrigue in his admonitions and appeal and may consider trying our hand at blank verse even if just for an exercise in discipline. But, then, he loses us by going on ad nauseam regarding enjambment and caesuras. He does raise some interesting points but it is just the wrong time to do so. This should be a chapter of summation, not of novelty. If left at summation, he would have had an effective explication of his thesis. Now it becomes a Romantic era symphony with all its bombast and bravado, one climax endlessly following another diminuendoing and crescendoing us to deafness. Its like that famous line of Renée Zellweger’s in the movie Jerry Maguire “You had me at hello!” -- know where to end. Even if he had placed this material at the beginning of the chapter would have been much better.
As has already been noted, in many places Shaw does an excellent job. There are also several points of weakness. Still, to draw our attention to what he considers an underused and abused form of poetry makes this a good book to have on our bookshelves until a better one comes along.
John Cunningham is a poet and writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Every once in a while he emerges from his igloo, hitches up his dog sled team, and sets off across the white expanse of emptiness known as Canada in order to write poetry reviews. He does o in Canada for Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Arc, Antigonish Review and Fiddlehead, in the U.S. for Big Bridge, Galatea Resurrects, Rain Taxi, Rattle and Quarterly Conversations, and in Australia for Jacket. TTFN.