ANALYZING BLANK VERSE

blank verseOverview

Here we look at the phrasing and melodic invention needed to make blank verse interesting, and how these two devices can be extended to unrhymed verse generally.

Morte d'Arthur

Blank verse is usually described as unrhymed iambic pentameters with frequent enjambment. An adaptable form, it can convey anything from elevated thought to everyday speech, and was once universally employed for drama and epic. Indeed, so easy is blank verse to write that it needs constraints, challenges and melodic invention if it is not become slipshod and boring.

First consider this piece, the opening and closing sections of Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur: {1}

Morte d'Arthur

So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

So said he, and the barge with oar and sail
Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan
That, fluting a wild carol ere her death,
Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood
With swarthy webs. Long stood Sir Bedivere
Revolving many memories, till the hull
Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away.

From Morte d'Arthur by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: 1835-42

Enjambment — the running-on or overflowing of sense and rhythm of one line into the next — is clear enough: So all day long the noise of battle roll'd among the mountains by the winter sea; etc. But so too is a 'blocking out' by pauses:

So all day long | the noise of battle roll'd |
Among the mountains | by the winter sea ||
Until King Arthur's table | man by man |
Had fallen in Lyonnesse | about their Lord ||

The cadences create these effects, so strongly marked that we are surprised to find no rhymes, so satisfyingly do the lines end. But there's also the melody of the long vowels, which overflow the metre:

So all day long | the noise of battle roll'd

The subtle alliteration:

So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,

And the pacing: the slow movement of the first four lines, a pause coming after then in line five to take breath, the quickening in the singly-moulded line six, and then a varied pacing helped by the repetition of Sir Bedivere to the full flood of:

On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

Which is echoed, distantly, with the d's largely replacing the more liquid l's is the final:

Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away.

A great more could be said about this celebrated piece, but I hope it will be seen that blank verse is not an escape from rhyme, but a replacement of rhyme by more powerful and carefully-woven requirements.

Tithonus

Technically, Tithonus is also blank verse, but with generally singly-moulded lines. Here are the opening and concluding sections of its 76 lines: {2}

Tithonus

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Yet hold me not for ever in thine East;
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.

From Tithonus by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: 1835-60

No rhymes, not even pararhyme, but something between assonance and pararhyme at times. And much repetition:

Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,

And a good deal else in what was probably written in response to sister Emily's grief at her fiancé's death, the Hallam to whom Tennyson was also greatly attached.

In Praise of Limestone

Tennyson continued to write accomplished blank verse for his Idylls of the King, {3} but the expressive power was not recaptured. The following is not blank verse, but alternating hexameters and quatrains, a tour de force by W.H. Auden. The opening lines: {4}

In Praise of Limestone

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits: hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish.

From In Praise of Limestone by W.H. Auden

We have looked at this and other pieces by Auden elsewhere, but here we should pause here consider the tone. David Perkins calls the piece dull, {5} which is perhaps to say that Auden is not riding his thirties hobbyhorses, or speaking from personal tragedy. The problem is perhaps the conversational ease: entertaining, bubbling along as ideas come to mind, but with thoughts that do not resonate across the poem. The elegiac expectations ushered in with The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, are realized in the setting, but how or why are we homesick in If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones / Are consistently homesick for? Auden's piece is thoroughly modern in its diction and cadence — a great accomplishment — but perhaps more is needed for so long a piece, for all the agile phrasing, with the ball kept spinning in the air:

If it form the one landscape that we | the inconstant ones |
Are consistently homesick for || this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water || Mark these rounded slopes |
With their surface fragrance of thyme | and | beneath |
A secret system of caves and conduits || hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle |
Each filling a private pool for its fish. ||

Also how the verbs and the ee sounds push the sense along, and the assonance in s, c and f/th. These are not decoration, but auditory sinews of the poem, giving it continuity, brio and consistency.

Cookham

Can we write something that employs the melodic invention of Tennyson and agile phrasing of Auden in a hexameter form?

Here are the lines that came to me when I visited Cookham, the Thameside village where Stanley Spencer lived and painted: {6}

As for the otherworldly, there are the clouds that hang
Muscular but sadly on the scenes beneath. Here
Stanley Spencer, painter and iconoclast painted
The solemn glory of his God.

Not good lines, but pregnant with opportunities. Spencer's life was unhappy, largely through his own idiocies: preoccupation with the nude, rejection of his dealer's advice, infatuation with a local woman that broke his marriage and left him practically homeless. What a poem might explore, I thought, were the clouds soaring over a prosperous English landscape and the hard life of a painter who drew his inspiration from its splendours. Blank verse would have been the natural choice, but I rather liked the opening hexameter, and was wary of the dangers of writing in so easy a form. So came a rereading of Auden, and an echo of Tennyson in this first rewriting, which opens out the sense more:

As for the otherworldly, there are the clouds only
That on some days hang in a corpulent splendour, casting
Opalescence and sadness on the hills beneath.

Stanley Spencer, painter and iconoclast,
Traced each day with solemn brush the glory
Of his God. He painted in large canvases

Which we correct, and then sketch out possibilities for other sections:

As for the otherworldly, there are the clouds only
That on some days hang in a radiant splendour, casting
An apocryphal sadness on the hills beneath.

Stanley Spencer, painter and iconoclast,
Traced each day with eye and brush the solemn the glory
Of his God. He painted in vast canvases
How the Thames gave up its treasures, rolled its children

It was a vision, mild as the weather, as if composed
Of half forgetfulness the public loved. Commissions
Followed

Painting became his life, and he obsessive: abroad
A celebrity, at home a bespectacled recluse.

Far distant from the village, his house, his now memorial,
And unconcerned by his passing, the huge clouds rise.

From which, with a little more description, the complete poem followed.

Cookham

As for the unfathomable, there are the clouds only
That on some days hang in indolent splendour, scattering
Refulgence and sadness on the hills beneath.

For here and everywhere is England: ordered, rollered
Into farms and parklands, shelving to the Thames
Which, upstream silver-dimpling into water meadows
Or threading into inlets, here on the village settles
An air of foreign occupation. It lines up boatyards
And small bridges, reflects the waterside hotels;
For visitors it shimmers, backdrops picnic lawns,
Jostles the odd pleasure craft, plunges, legend-pooled,
To runs of tench and perch.

                                             All this is thematic,
And was. Stanley Spencer, painter and iconoclast,
Traced each day with eye and brush the solemn glory
Of his God. He painted in vast canvases
The Thames rolled back, from its cramping gravels the dead
Awakened, tumbled out in dawn-pale multitudes
Of children, postmen, vicar, schoolmistresses, the baker. . .

The vision, roundly drawn, composed as of the weather
With its mildness and forgetfulness, the public
Accepted in large commission. More followed. He married,
Was successful. Working on altar pieces, however,
He pierced the body to its ribald cloak of flesh;
Painted his own in every jubilant particular,
Then a friend's. All still, he saw, the progeny of God.
The public disagreed, bought nothing. By turns
He lost his wife, his friend, the cottage and commissions.
He painted on. Became obsessive: abroad a celebrity,
At home a bespectacled recluse. Eventually God left him.
In the iron-stained gravels one stripped December day
They buried him, a pauper with a civic pension.

Years pass. At the request of visitors the council
Open a museum, which vies now with the Sunday funfair.
And over the village, and far from his demise —
Unruffled and unconcerned by it — the huge clouds rise.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

References

1. Morte d'Arthur. Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.
2. Tithonus. Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.
3. Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com..
4. In Praise of Limestone. W.H. Auden. Collected Longer Poems. 1969.
5. A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After, David Perkins, (Belknap Press, 1987), 165.
6. Sir Stanley Spencer CBE, RA 1891-1959. http://www.cookham.com/about/biography.htm
7. Literary History: Tennyson. Jan Pridmore. Nov. 2004. http://www.literaryhistory.com/19thC/TENNYSON.htm Short listing of Tennyson sources.

 

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