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As we have already stressed in an earlier article, the best way to read and enjoy poetry is to read it aloud. Although some poems could be enjoyed “as a visual experience” through the appreciation of their structures on the page, they are ultimately meant to be heard and seen. This is why special attention to the sound and rhythmic patterns in a poem is a key to the full appreciation of a poem; hence the importance of an understanding of the skilful deployment of stressed and unstressed syllables in verse forms to convey speech rhythm and emotions.

Blank Verse

This is a type of metrical composition which typically consists of lines of unrhymed iambic pentameters and was the dominant verse used for English dramatic and narrative poetry since the 16th century. In England it was first adapted by Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey in his translation of some books of Virgil’s Aeneid. Its original sources or homes were classical Greece and Rome from where it was adapted by the Italian Renaissance writers. It is called blank verse because, as opposed to the conventions of metrical compositions, it was not in stanzas, rather it was marked by verse paragraphs that set off each sustained unit of meaning. In the hands of a capable poet, it is “a supple instrument uniquely capable of conveying speech rhythm and emotional overtones” (Encarta).

Such famous English poets and playwrights as John Milton in “Paradise Lost”, Alfred Tennyson in his narrative verses and William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlow and other Elizabethans in their plays.

Heroic Verse

This is iambic pentameter lines rhyming in twos, aa bb cc, etc. It is called heroic because it was the medium or form used for heroic/epic poetry and plays in English. However, it evolved from the 14th century when it was the medium utilised by Geoffrey Chaucer and was usually written in the ten syllable (decasyllabic) lines. It became use became widespread and popular in the 17th and 18th centuries at which time it became known as heroic couplet. It is the smallest unit of verse forms and as such it is quite restrictive as can be demonstrated in the following examples drawn from the works of two great poets of Augustan or 18th century English poetry:

  1. First follow Nature, and your judgement frame

By her just standard, which is still the same.

Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism”

  1. All human things are subject to decay,

And when fate summons, monarchs must obey.

John Dryden, “McFlecknoe”.

There are two distinct types of the heroic couplet namely, the closed and the open. The closed couplet is that in which the end of the two lines of the couplet coincides with the end of either a sentence, a complete thought or a selfcontained unit of syntax, with a pause at the end of the first line and a termination of that unit of thought at the end of the second line. Consider the two examples above. Thus, this type constitutes a stanza but it is not separated from the lines that precede or follow it. On the other hand, in the open couplet, the syntax is not symmetrical, the lines run-on, and rhyme is a mere ornament rather than marking the end of the verse as in the vibrant and rhythmical opening lines of Chaucer’s prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote

The drogte of Marche hath perced to the rote,

And bathed every veyne in Swich locour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heet

The tendre croppes….

Free Verse

In the words of Heese and Lawton, free verse “may be defined as rhythmical lines varying in length, adhering to no fixed metrical pattern, and usually unrhymed (48). These characteristics were meant to free poetry from the restrictions of formal metrical patterns and approximate the free rhythm of natural speech. In this sense, free verse (verse libre as it was called by the French ) is written with a general rhythm rather than any pattern of metre or line length; it has a vague rhythm based largely on repetition, balance and variation of phrases or parallel grammatical structure.

There is no doubt that the absence of regular stress pattern or metre may lead to the misconception that this type of verse is arbitrary and lacks the discipline imposed by conventional rhythmic pattern. To correct this misconception, TS Eliot has rightly quipped that no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job since the absence of metre does not indicate absence of rhythm. You should be able to detect the rhythmic pattern achieved in a poem written in free verse through the peculiar variations in line length, repetition, etc adopted by the poet.

The French Symbolist poets of the late 19th century and the American Walt Whitman as well as most modern poets, especially the Imagists of the 20th century, made effective use of free verse. The following lines excerpted from TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” are typical of the verse form:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

You should take note of the varied/irregular line lengths, the absence of a consciously contrived rhyme scheme and the vague rhythm that approximates the rhythm of natural speech.


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