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The first known use of blank verse in the English language was by Henry Howard, Earl of Arundel and Surrey in his interpretation of the Æneid (c. 1554). He was possibly inspired by the Latin original, as classical Latin verse (as well as Greek verse) did not use rhyme; he may have been inspired by the Italian verse form of versi sciolti, which also contained no rhyme.
Christopher Marlowe was the first English author to make full use of the potential of blank verse, and also established it as the dominant verse form for English drama in the age of Elizabeth I and James I. The major achievements in English blank verse were made by William Shakespeare, who wrote much of the content of his plays in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and Milton, whose Paradise Lost is written in blank verse. After Milton (in fact, during his later life), blank verse went out of fashion and for a century and a half the favored verse form in English was that of couplets. Romantic English poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats revived blank verse as a major form. Following shortly afterwards, Alfred Lord Tennyson became particularly devoted to blank verse, using it for example in his long narrative poem "The Princess", as well as for one of his most famous poems: "Ulysses". Among American poets, Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are notable for using blank verse in extended compositions at a time when many other poets were turning to free verse.
Russian bylinas are in blank verse.
The earliest blank verse consisted of end-stopped and regular lines; Gorboduc (1561), the first blank-verse tragedy, illustrates how monotonous such verse could be. Marlowe and then Shakespeare developed its potential greatly in the late 16th century. Marlowe was the first to exploit the potential of blank verse for powerful and involved speech:
Shakespeare developed this feature, and also the potential of blank verse for abrupt and irregular speech. The earliest effects were like these:
Shakespeare also used enjambment increasingly often in his verse, and in his last plays was given to using feminine endings (in which the last syllable of the line is unstressed, for instance lines 3 and 6 of the example); all of this made his later blank verse extremely rich and varied.
This very free treatment of blank verse was imitated by Shakespeare's contemporaries, and led to general metrical looseness in the hands of less skilled users. However, Shakespearean blank verse was used with some success by John Webster and Thomas Middleton in their plays. Ben Jonson, meanwhile, used a tighter blank verse with less enjambment in his great comedies Volpone and The Alchemist.
Blank verse was not much used in the non-dramatic poetry of the 17th century until Paradise Lost, in which Milton used it with much licence and tremendous skill. Milton used the flexibility of blank verse, its capacity to support syntactic complexity, to the utmost, in passages such as these:
Milton also wrote Paradise Regained and parts of Samson Agonistes in blank verse.
In the century after Milton, there are few distinguished uses of either dramatic or non-dramatic blank verse; in keeping with the desire for regularity, most of the blank verse of this period is somewhat stiff. The best examples of blank verse from this time are probably John Dryden's tragedy All For Love and James Thomson's The Seasons. A notably unsuccessful piece is John Dyer's The Fleece.
The next major poet in blank verse was William Wordsworth, who used it in many of the Lyrical Ballads (1798), The Prelude, The Excursion etc. Wordsworth's verse recovers some of the freedom of Milton's, but is generally far more regular. It is often tedious and prosaic, but at its best it has a calm resonance that is almost unique to Wordsworth. Similarly, the blank verse of Keats in Hyperion is modelled 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.
Of the Victorian writers in blank verse, the most prominent are Tennyson and Robert Browning. Tennyson's blank verse in poems like "Ulysses" and "The Princess" is musical and regular; his lyric "Tears, Idle Tears" is probably the first important example of the blank verse stanzaic poem. Browning's blank verse, in poems like "Fra Lippo Lippi", is more abrupt and conversational.
One surprising place where blank verse turns up in Victorian times is in Gilbert & Sullivan's opera "Princess Ida". Gilbert dialogue is in blank verse throughout (making this exception in the 13 Savoy operas - the other exceptional point is that it is in 3 Acts, not 2). Below is a delightful extract spoken by Princess Ida after singing the aria "Oh, goddess wise".
Blank verse, of varying degrees of regularity, has been used quite frequently throughout the 20th century in original verse and in translations of narrative verse. Most of Robert Frost's narrative and conversational poems are in blank verse; so are other important poems like Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West" and "The Comedian as the Letter C", W. B. Yeats's "The Second Coming", W. H. Auden's "The Watershed", and so on. A complete listing is impossible, since a sort of loose blank verse has become a staple of lyric poetry, but it would be safe to say that blank verse is as prominent now as it has been any time in the past three hundred years.
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