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.
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".
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.