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Free verse is an open form of poetry which in its modern form arose through the French vers libre form. It does not use consistent meter patterns, rhyme, or any musical pattern.[1] It thus tends to follow the rhythm of natural speech.


Poets have explained that free verse is not totally free: "Its only freedom is from the tyrant demands of the metered line."[2] Free verse displays some elements of form. Most free verse maintains the poetic convention of the poetic line to some degree, at least in written representations, though retaining a potential degree of linkage.[clarification needed] 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,"[3] and T. S. Eliot wrote, "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."[4]

Kenneth Allott, the poet and critic, said the adoption by some poets of vers libre arose from "mere desire for novelty, the imitation of Whitman, the study of Jacobean dramatic blank verse, and the awareness of what French poets had already done to the alexandrine in France."[5] The American critic John Livingston Lowes in 1916 observed "Free verse may be written as very beautiful prose; prose may be written as very beautiful free verse. Which is which?"[6]

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."[clarification needed] William Carlos Williams said, "Being an art form, verse cannot be free in the sense of having no limitations or guiding principles."[7] Yvor Winters, the poet and critic, said, "The free verse that is really verse, the best that is, of W.C. Williams, H. D., Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound is the antithesis of free."[8]

Vers libreEdit

Vers libre is a free verse poetic form of flexibility, complexity and naturalness[9] created in the late 19th century in France, in 1886, largely through the activities of La Vogue, a weekly journal founded by Gustave Kahn,[10] and the appearance of a band of poets unequalled at any one time in the history of French poetry,[11] the ‘Counter-Romanticism’ led by Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Laforgue, Corbière,[12] concerned with synaethesis (the harmony or equilibrium of sensation)[13] later described as ‘the moment when French poetry began to take consciousness of itself as poetry’.[14] Gustave Kahn was commonly supposed to have invented the term Vers libre and according to F. S. Flint 'was undoubtedly the first theorist of the techniques'.[15] Later in 1912, Robert de Souza published his conclusion on the genre[16] 'that a vers libre was possible which would keep all the essential characteristics of vers classique, but would free it from the encumbrances which usage had made appear indispensable'.[17] Thus the practice of verse libre was not the abandoning of pattern, but the creation of an original and complicated metrical form for each poem.[18]

The formal stimuli for vers libre were vers libéré (French verse of the late 19th century that liberated itself from classical rules of versification whilst observing the principle of isosyllabism and regular patterned rhyme), and vers libre classique (a minor French genre of the 17th and 18th century which conformed to classic concepts, but in which lines of different length were irregularly and unpredictable combined), and vers populaire (versification derived from oral aspects of popular song).[10] Remy de Gourmont's Livre des Masques gave definition to the whole vers libre movement,[19] noting there should arise, at regular intervals, a full and complete line, which reassures the ear and guides the rhythm.[20]

Form and structureEdit

The unit of vers libre is not the foot, the number of the syllables, the quantity, or the line. The unit is the strophe, which may be the whole poem, or only a part. Each strophe is a complete circle.[21] in vers libre ‘verse-formal based upon cadence that allows the lines to flow as they will when read aloud by an intelligent reader’.[22]

Unrhymed cadence in vers libre is built upon 'organic rhythm,' or the rhythm of the speaking voice with its necessity for breathing, rather than upon a strict metrical system.[23] for vers libre addresses the ear not the eye.[24] Vers libre is liberated from traditional rules concerning metre, caesura and line end stopping,[25] every syllable pronounced is of nearly equal value but is less strongly accented than in English, being less intense requires less discipline to mold the accents into the poem's rhythm.[17] This new technique as defined by Kahn consisted of the denial of a regular number of syllables as the basis for versification, the length of line is long and short, oscillating with images used by the poet following the contours of his or her thoughts and is free rather than regular.[26]


Vers libre, until 1912, had hardly been heard of outside France[27] until T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint shared their knowledge thereof in 1909 with the Poets Club in London[28] which later became the heart of the Imagist movement[29] and through Flint's advocacy of the genre[30] and thus vers libre influenced Imagism in the discovery of new forms and rhythms.[31]

Imagism in the wake of French Symbolism (i.e. vers libre of French Symbolist poets[32]) was the wellspring out of which the main current of Modernism in English flowed,[33] which T. S. Eliot later identified as ‘the point de repere usually taken as the starting point of modern poetry’,[34] as hundreds of poets were led to adopt vers libre as their medium.[35]


As the French-language term vers libre suggests, this technique of using more irregular cadences is often said to have its origin in the practices of 19th-century French poets such as Gustave Kahn and Jules Laforgue in his Derniers vers of 1890. Taupin, the US-based French poet and critic, concluded that free verse and vers libre are not synonymous, since "the French language tends to give equal weight to each spoken syllable, whereas English syllables vary in quantity according to whether stressed or unstressed."[36]

The sort of cadencing that we now recognize in free verse can be traced back at least as far as the Biblical Hebrew psalmist poetry of the Bible.[37] By referring to the Psalms, it is possible to argue that free verse in English first appeared in the 1380s in the John Wycliffe translation of the Psalms and was repeated in different form in most biblical translations ever since.

Walt Whitman, who based his long lines in his poetry collection Leaves of Grass on the phrasing of the King James Bible, influenced later American free verse composers, notably Allen Ginsberg.[38] One form of free verse was employed by Christopher Smart in his long poem Jubilate Agno (Latin: Rejoice in the Lamb) , written some time between 1759 and 1763 but not published until 1939.

Many poets of the Victorian era experimented with free verse. Christina Rossetti, Coventry Patmore, and T. E. Brown all wrote examples of rhymed but unmetered verse, poems such as W. E. Henley's "Discharged" (from his In Hospital sequence).

Free verse in English was persuasively advocated by critic T. E. Hulme in his A Lecture on Modern Poetry (1908). Later in the preface to Some Imagist Poets 1916, he comments, "Only the name is new, you will find something much like vers libre in Dryden's Threnodia Augustalis; a great deal of Milton's Samson Agonistes, and the oldest in Chaucer's House of Fame."[39]

In France, a few pieces in Arthur Rimbaud's prose poem collection Illuminations were arranged in manuscript in lines, rather than prose, and in the Netherlands, tachtiger (i.e., a member of the 1880s generation of innovative poets) Frederik van Eeden employed the form at least once in his poem "Waterlelie" ("Water Lily").[40]

Goethe—particularly in some early poems, such as "Prometheus"—and Hölderlin used free verse 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.[41]

The German poet Heinrich Heine made an important contribution to the development of free verse with 22 poems, written in two-poem cycles, called Die Nordsee (The North Sea) (written 1825-1826).[42] These were first published in Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs) in 1827.

Form and structureEdit

Although free verse requires no meter, rhyme, or other traditional poetic techniques, a poet can still use them to create some sense of structure. A clear example of this can be found in Walt Whitman's poems, where he repeats certain phrases and uses commas to create both a rhythm and structure.

Pattern and discipline is to be found in good free verse: the internal pattern of sounds, the choice of exact words, and the effect of associations give free verse its beauty.[43] With the Imagists free verse became a discipline and acquired status as a legitimate poetic form.[44] Herbert Read, however, noted that "the Imagist Ezra Pound gave free verse its musical structure to an extent that parodoxically it was no longer free."[45]

Unrestrained by traditional boundaries, Yvor Winters described this as "attempts to widen experience by establishing 'abnormal' conventions,"[8] the poet possesses more license to express, and has more control over the development of the poem. This can allow for a more spontaneous and individualized poetic art product.

Technically, free verse has been described as spaced prose, a mosaic of verse and prose experience.[46]


  1. ^ Abbs, Peter; Richardson, John. The Forms of Poetry: A practical study guide for English (15th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 137. ISBN 978-0-521-37160-5.
  2. ^ Allen, Charles, "Cadenced Free Verse", College English, vol 9, number 6, January 1948
  3. ^ Donald Hall, in the essay 'Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird' in the book of 0-472-40000-2.
  4. ^ Eliot quote from the essay, "The Music of Poetry" Jackson (1 January 1942) ASIN B0032Q49RO
  5. ^ Introductory Note by Kenneth Allott (ed.) The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England 1950
  6. ^ Lowes, Livingston John, Nation Feb 1916
  7. ^ Free Verse, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 2nd Ed, 1975
  8. ^ a b Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry Arrow Editions, New York, 1937
  9. ^ Hover, Richard Poet in Town Interview with Boston Record Sept 1898
  10. ^ a b Scott, Clive, Vers libre : the emergence of free verse in France, 1886-1914 Clarendon Press, Oxford ISBN 978-0-19-815159-3
  11. ^ Hulme, T. E. Lecture on Modern Poetry, Kensington Town Hall 1914
  12. ^ Pratt, William,Introduction to The Influence of French Symbolism on Modern American Poetry by René Taupin, AMS Press Inc, New York 1985 ISBN 0-404-61579-1
  13. ^ I A Richards & C.K.Ogden The Foundations of Aesthestics, Lear Publisher, New York 1925
  14. ^ Maritain Jaques, The Situation of Poetry Now, Philosophical Library, New York, 1955
  15. ^ Flint, F. S., Contemporary French Poetry,The Poetry Review Aug 1912
  16. ^ de Souza, Robert, Du Rythme en Francais, Welter, Paris 1912
  17. ^ a b Taupin, René, The Influence of French Symbolism on Modern American Poetry (1986),(trans William Pratt) Ams Studies in Modern Literature, ISBN 0-404-61579-1
  18. ^ Pondrom, Cryrena The Road from Paris, French Influence on English Poetry 1900-1920 Cambridge University Press 1974 ISBN 978-0-521-13119-3
  19. ^ Read, Herbert The Tenth Muse New York 1958
  20. ^ Remy de Gourmant, Le Probleme du Style, Paris 1900
  21. ^ Lowes, John Livingston Conventions and Revolt in Poetry Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1919
  22. ^ Lowell, Amy, Preface, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed; North American Review for January, 1917
  23. ^ Lowes, John Livingston Conventions and Revolt in Poetry Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1919
  24. ^ de Souza Robert, Du Rythme en Francais, Welter, Paris 1912
  25. ^ Kahn, Gustave, Le Vers libre, Paris, 1923 ASIN: B008XZTTY2
  26. ^ Hulme, T. E., Lecture on Modern Poetry, Kensington Town Hall 1914
  27. ^ Aldington, Richard, A Young American Poet The Little Review, March 1915.
  28. ^ Pondrom, Cryrena The Road from Paris, French Influence on English Poetry 1900-1920 Cambridge University Press 1974 ISBN 978-0-521-13119-3
  29. ^ F. S. Flint, The History of Imagism Essay in The Egoist May 1915
  30. ^ Jones Peter (editor) Introduction to Imagist Poetry Penguin Books ISBN 0-14-042147-5
  31. ^ Review of Imagist Anthology 1930 Times Literary Supplement June 1931
  32. ^ Pratt William Introduction to The Imagist Poem, modern poetry in miniature Uno Press 1963 edition ISBN 978-0-9728143-8-6
  33. ^ Pratt William Preface to The Imagist Poem, modern poetry in miniatureUno Press 1963 edition ISBN 978-0-9728143-8-6
  34. ^ ,Eliot T. S. Address To Criticize the Critic to Washington University June 1953, Faber & Faber 1965
  35. ^ Untermeyer, Louis, Preface to Modern American Poetry Harcourt Brace& Co New York 1950
  36. ^ Taupin, Rene. The Influence of French Symbolism on Modern American Poetry (1986), (translated by William Pratt), Ams Studies in Modern Literature, ISBN 0-404-61579-1
  37. ^ Allen, Charles 'Cadenced Free Verse' , College English , vol 9, no 6 January 1948
  38. ^ H. T. Kirby-Smith (1998). The Origins of Free Verse. University of Michigan Press. p. 44. ISBN 0-472-08565-4.
  39. ^ Preface to Some Imagist Poets, Constable, 1916
  40. ^ "De waterlelie < Frederik van Eeden".
  41. ^ Michael Hamburger: Foreword in Robert Marcellus Browning (ed.): German poetry from 1750 to 1900 (The German Library, vol. 39), New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1984, p. XV, ISBN 0-8264-0282-8
  42. ^ "Songs of Love and Grief: A Bilingual Anthology in the Verse Forms of the ... - Heinrich Heine - Google Books". 22 November 1995. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  43. ^ Boulton, Marjories, Anatomy of Poetry, Routledge&Kegan, London 1953
  44. ^ Pratt, William. The Imagist Poem, Modern Poetry in Miniature (Story Line Press, 1963, expanded 2001). ISBN 1-58654-009-2.
  45. ^ Read, Herbert Ezra Pound, The Tenth Muse. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1957
  46. ^ Patterson, William Morrison, Rhythm of Prose (Preface 2nd edition) Columbia University Press, 1916. [1]

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

On vers libreEdit

  • Taupin, René The Influence of French Symbolism on Modern American Poetry (1986),(trans William Pratt) Ams Studies in Modern Literature, ISBN 0-404-61579-1
  • Pondrom, Cryrena The Road from Paris, French Influence on English Poetry 1900-1920 Cambridge University Press 1974 ISBN 978-0-521-13119-3
  • Scott, Clive, Vers libre : the emergence of free verse in France, 1886-1914 Clarendon Press, Oxford ISBN 978-0-19-815159-3
  • Kahn, Gustave, Le Vers libre, Paris, 1923 ASIN: B008XZTTY2
  • Pound, Ezra, The Approach to Paris The New Age Sep 1913

External linksEdit