free verse

free verse

free verse, term loosely used for rhymed or unrhymed verse made free of conventional and traditional limitations and restrictions in regard to metrical structure. Cadence, especially that of common speech, is often substituted for regular metrical pattern. Free verse is a literal translation of the French vers libre, which originated in late 19th-century France among poets, such as Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue, who sought to free poetry from the metrical regularity of the alexandrine. The term has also been applied by modern literary critics to the King James translation of the Bible, particularly the Song of Solomon and the Psalms, to certain poems of Matthew Arnold, and to the irregular poetry of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The form is also closely associated with English and American poets of the 20th cent. who sought greater liberty in verse structure, including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, and Marianne Moore.
Free verse is a term describing various styles of poetry that are written without using strict meter or rhyme, but that still are recognizable as poetry by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers will perceive to be part of a coherent whole.


Philip Hobsbaum identifies three major types of free verse:

  1. Free iambic verse which is an extension of the work of the Jacobean dramatists. Practitioners of this sort of free verse include: T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and W. H. Auden.
  2. Cadenced verse in the manner of Walt Whitman
  3. Free verse proper, where the discrepancies and variations of meter are centre stage

Cadenced verse is today based on rhythmical phrases that are more irregular than those of traditional poetic meter. When it is used, it tends to follow a looser pattern than would be expected in formal verse. Free verse does away with the structuring devices of regular meter and rhyme schemes; other traditional elements of expression, such as diction and syntax may still be prominent.


An early usage of the term appears in 1915 in the anonymous preface to the first Imagist anthology. The main author of this preface was Richard Aldington. The preface states: "We do not insist upon 'free-verse' as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty."

The ideal of the early practitioners of free verse was well described by Ezra Pound, who wrote: "As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome. D. H. Lawrence wrote that Whitman "pruned away his clichés — perhaps his clichés of rhythm as well as of phrase" and that all one could do with free verse was "get rid of the stereotyped movements and the old hackneyed associations of sound and sense".

Some poets have explained that free verse, despite its freedom, must still display some elements of form. Pound's friend T. S. Eliot wrote: "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job. Donald Hall goes as far as to say that "the form of free verse is as binding and as liberating as the form of a rondeau.

Some poets have considered free verse restrictive in its own way. In 1922 Robert Bridges voiced his reservations in the essay 'Humdrum and Harum-Scarum.' Robert Frost later remarked that writing free verse was like "playing tennis without a net".


As the name vers libre suggests, this technique of using more irregular cadences is often said to derive from the practices of 19th century French poets such as Gustave Kahn and Jules Laforgue. However, in English the sort of cadencing that we now recognize as a variety of free verse can be traced back at least as far as the King James Bible. Walt Whitman, who based his verse approach on the Bible, was the major precursor for modern poets writing free verse, though they were reluctant to acknowledge his influence.

Many poets of the Victorian era experimented with form. Christina Rossetti, Coventry Patmore, and T. E. Brown all wrote examples of unpatterned rhymed verse. Matthew Arnold's poem Philomela contains some rhyme but is very free. Poems such as W. E. Henley's 'Discharged' (from his In Hospital sequence), and Robert Louis Stevenson's poems 'The Light-Keeper' and 'The Cruel Mistress' could be counted early examples of free verse.

In France, free verse was occasionally used by symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. In the Netherlands, tachtiger (i.e. member of 1880s generation of innovative poets) Frederik van Eeden employed the form at least once (in his poem Waterlelie ["water lily"]). Goethe (particularly in some early poems, such as Prometheus) and Hölderlin used it occasionally, due in part to a misinterpretation of the meter used in Pindar's poetry; in Hölderlin's case, he also continued to write unmetered poems after discovering this error.



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