Writing Blank Verse

Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter:

| da DA| da DA| da DA| da DA| da DA/

  • "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?" --Shakespeare
  • "So live, that when thy summons comes to join" --William Cullen Bryant
  • "Far off the noises of the world retreat" --Longfellow

    Examine the following:

    "The loud vociferations of the street" --Longfellow

    This line of iambic pentameter accents the word "of" somewhat unnaturally, the word "of" usually going unaccented in normal speech. However, single syllable words are sometimes placed and accented to complete the iambic pentameter without much ill effect to the line.

    An occasional line of only nine syllables or of eleven syllables is sometimes used, but not preferred. If we modify the line to read

    Loud vociferations of the street

    we lose a syllable, allowable, but not desirable. Notice, however, that though the verse now seems trochaic pentameter, minus the final syllable, in context with other verse lines, we would probably still see it as iambic pentameter, minus the first syllable. However, if the line were rewritten with eleven syllables, changing the word "loud" to "noisy,"

    The noisy vociferations of the street

    we cannot preserve the iambic pentameter in the middle of the verse, as two unaccented syllables are placed side by side. This is not good and should be avoided.


    The key point to remember is this: iambic pentameter requires five accented syllables. If we have nine total syllables (including unaccented syllables), we must make certain that we have lost an unaccented syllable. If we have eleven total syllables, we must make certain that we have added an unaccented syllable. And the accented/unaccented syllables must alternate.

    Through a long literary tradition, different verse forms have proven suitable for different purposes in poetry. Blank verse, which is close to normal speech in its rhythm, has often been used in dramatic poetry, such as William Shakespeare's plays, and in poems on serious subjects, such as John Milton's Paradise Lost. With its fixed rhythm and regular line length, blank verse is less "free" than free verse, in which the rhythm is irregular and the lines vary in length. But it is also more open than most types of rhymed verse. A couplet, for instance, completes a thought in two rhyming lines. Blank verse allows a much more extended development of a thought, sometimes through many lines. Again, this is appropriate to poetry that deals seriously with complex and profound subjects.

    The danger for the poet who uses blank verse is that the regular rhythm may become monotonous and even singsong. Poets may guard against this by introducing slight variation in rhythm. Rhythm is also varied by the careful use of pauses within lines, called "caesuras." Caesuras are "sense pauses," hesitations in the rhythm that are necessary to the sense of the line. They may be created by punctuation, but they may also result from the meanings of words or the natural rhythms of language.

    The reader of blank verse should recognize the basic rhythms of the lines but should avoid a mechanical pattern of emphasis that ignores the meaning of the words. It is useful to think of blank verse as a heightened or unusually intense form of speech in which the rhythm, carefully controlled through stress and caesura, is essential to the meaning.

    Writing blank verse is very simple. Two basic ways to align the syllables and words into the required iambic pentameter are

    Read the following blank verse poem:


    Illinois River

    © 1999 Stephen A. Miser
    The leafless silhouettes of sycamores

    That by the river grow to dizzy heights,

    Where herons nest beyond the reach of those

    Who prey on fledgling hopes, reach out their arms,

    Embrace the somber gray November sky

    And, patient, wait the coming rains of spring,

    When once again their leafy, golden green

    Casts shadows down upon the fish-filled pools.



    We never want to read blank verse with undue emphasis on the accented syllables. It makes the reading sound too sing-song. However, to illustrate the scansion of blank verse, this same poem is rendered below with accented syllables marked in bold. Studying the poem will help you to see how the natural pronunciation of the words, which includes the accented syllables, fits into the blank verse scansion.


    Illinois River

    © 1999 Stephen A. Miser
    The leafless silhouettes of sycamores

    That by the river grow to dizzy heights,

    Where herons nest beyond the reach of those

    Who prey on fledgling hopes, reach out their arms,

    Embrace the somber gray November sky

    And, patient, wait the coming rains of spring,

    When once again their leafy, golden green

    Casts shadows down upon the fish-filled pools.

    The key here is to write blank verse so that the accented syllables in normal pronunciation are honored in the blank verse. Do not force accents into the wrong places. It destroys the blank verse meter.