Blank verse is a literary device that consists of unrhymed five-stress lines; properly, iambic pentameters. It was introduced in England by the Earl of Surrey in the 16th c. in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (c. 1540)
Surrey probably took the idea from the versi sciolti (“freed verse´) of Molza’s Italian translations of the Aeneid (1539). It has become the most widely used of English verse forms and is the one closest to the rhythms of everyday English speech. This is one of the reasons why it has been particularly favoured by dramatists.
It was almost certainly first used for a play by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton in Gorboduc (1561), and then became the standard verse for later Tudor and Jacobean dramatists who made it a most subtle and flexible instrument: for instance, Thomas Heywood in A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603):
O speak no more!
For more than this I know, and have recorded
Within the red-leaved table of my heart.
Fair, and of all beloved, I was not fearful
Bluntly to give my life into your hand,
And at one hazard all my earthly means.
Go, tell your husband; he will turn me off,
And I am then undone. I care not, I:
‘Twas for your sake. Perchance in rage he’ll kill me,
I care not, ’twas for you. Say I incur
The general name of villain through the world,
Of traitor to my friend; I care not, I.
Beggary, shame, death, scandal, and reproach,
For you I’ll hazard all: why, what care I?
For you I’ll live, and in your love I’ll die.
Thereafter it was used a great deal for reflective and narrative poems, notably by John Milton in Paradise Lost (1667). During the late 17th c. and the first half of the 18th c. it was used much less often. John Dryden, Alexander Pope, indeed the majority of 18th c. poets preferred the heroic couplet. However, Thomson used it in The Seasons (1726–30), so did Thomas Young in Night Thoughts (1742) and Cowper in The Task (1785).
Blank verse allows an author to not be constricted by rhyme, which is limited in English. Yet it still creates a more poetic sound and sense of pattern due to the regular use of stressed and unstressed syllables. Meter is generally easier to use in English than rhyme since the majority of words are short (one or two syllables), unlike in Romance languages.
Wordsworth especially, and Coleridge, made much use of it. For example
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! And again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. – Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs…
All the poets of the Romantic period wrote blank verse extensively, and so did most of the great poets of the 19th c. The blank verse of Keats in Hyperion is mainly modeled on that of Milton, but takes fewer liberties with the pentameter and possesses the characteristic beauties of Keats’s verse. Shelley’s blank verse in The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound is closer to Elizabethan practice than to Milton’s. It is still quite widely practiced today and dramatists like Maxwell Anderson and T. S. Eliot have experimented with it in their plays.
Also read: Discuss Couplet, Triplet and Quatrain