Rail yard background, from the Library of Congress

Connections

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Blank Verse
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Blank verse describes unrhymed poetry whose lines share the same meter; for English poetry, practically speaking, it is generally safe to assume that the meter is iambic pentameter. In short, blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter. (Do not confuse blank verse with free verse, which does not have a regular meter.) Blank verse is frequently said to mirror the roughly iambic speech patterns of conversational English. It does so to a point, but of course the formal rules governing blank verse create a more regular, controlled sound than truly conversational speech.

English poets began to use blank verse in the sixteenth century. Late in that century, Christopher Marlowe, an older contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote influential dramas in blank verse. Shakespeare followed Marlowe's example; though Shakespeare's plays include a variety of prose and verse forms, the bulk of their conversational and thoughtful language consists of blank verse. Shakespearean blank verse relies heavily on substitutions of three-syllable feet that create rhythmic variation. Here are the opening lines of Hamlet's most famous soliloquy:




  To be, or not to be: that is the question:

  Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer 

  The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, 

  Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, 

  And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; 

  No more; and by a sleep to say we end 

  The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

  That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation 

  Devoutly to be wish'd. 



Note how many of these lines contain eleven syllables. Where is Shakespeare adding those spare syllables to his blank verse, and what effects do they create?

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