Free Verse and Accented Verse

Verse remains classical if it retains its metrical scheme.

There are, however, types of verse which are not classical. The one most popular is what is called "vers libre" which is the French term for free verse. Free verse departs considerably from the strict require­ments of classical verse, but its departures are legalized. Free verse is recognized by lack of strictness in its rhythmical design. The term 'free verse' is used rather loosely by different writers; so much so that what is known as accented or stressed verse is also sometimes in­cluded.

Here we shall use the term 'free verse' to refer only to those varieties of verse which are characterized by: 1) a combination of various metrical feet in the line; 2) absence of equilinearity and 3) stanzas of varying length. Rhyme, however, is generally retained. Hence the term 'free verse' is limited in this work to verse in which there is a more or less regular combination of different metrical feet, different lengths of line and different lengths of stanza.

A good illustration of free verse in our sense of the term is Shelley's poem "The Cloud."

"I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,

From the seas and the streams; I bear light shade for the leaves when laid

•In their noonday dreams. From my wings are shaken the dews that waken

The sweet buds every one, When rocked to rest on their mother's breast,

As she dances about the sun. I wield the flail of the lashing hail,

And whiten the green plains under, And then again I dissolve it in rain,

And laugh as I pass in thunder."

Here the odd lines are tetrameters in which there are combinations of iambic and anapaestic metres. The even lines are either dimeters or trimeters of iambic and anapaestic metre. So the metre is not homoge­neous within the lines; the lines are of different lengths and the stanzas have different numbers of lines: the first one has twelve lines, the second eighteen, the third fourteen. The remaining stanzas also vary in length. The number of syllables in each line also varies. The first line has nine syllables, the second—six, the third—nine, the fourth—five, the fifth— eleven, the sixth—six, the seventh—nine, the eightK—seven, the ninth— nine, the tenth—eight, the eleventh—ten, the twelfth—eight.

Yet in this irregularity there is a certain regularity. First of all there is a regular alternation of long and short lines; there is a definite com­bination of only two feet: iambic and anapaestic; there is a definite rhym-4 ing scheme: the long lines have internal rhyme, the short ones rhyme with each other. These regularities are maintained throughout the poem. And that is why we say that in spite of an appreciable departure from clas­sical principles it remains to a large extent syllabo-tonic verse. The

regularities we have pointed out prevent us from naming the instances of departure from the classic model 'modifications' since they have a defi­nite structural pattern. Classic modifications of the rhythm are acci­dental, not regular.

Free verse is not, of course, confined to the pattern just described. There may not be any two poems written in free verse which will have the same structural pattern. This underlying freedom makes verse less rigid and more colloquial-like.

The departure from metrical rules is sometimes considered a sign of progressiveness in verse, which is doubtful.

Classical English verse, free verse and the accented verse which we are about to discuss, all enjoy equal rights from the aesthetic point of view and none of these types of verse has any ascendancy over the others. Accented v e r se is a type of verse in which only the num­ber of stresses in the line is taken into consideration. The number of "syllables is not a constituent; it is irrelevant and therefore disregarded. Accented verse is not syllabo-tonic but only tonic. In its extreme form the lines have no pattern of regular metrical feet nor fixed length, there is no notion of stanza, and there are no rhymes. Like free verse, accented verse has very many variants, some approaching free verse and some de­parting so far from any recognized rhythmical pattern that we can hardly observe the essential features of this mode of communication. For the sake of illustration we shall quote two poems representing the two ex­tremes of accented verse.

1. "With fingers weary and worn;

With eyelids heavy and red, A woman sat in unwomanly rags, Plying her needle and thread,— Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!

In poverty, hunger and dirt; “* And stilbwith a^-voice of dolorous pitch *She sang the "Song of the Shirt."

Work! Work! Work!

While the cock is crowing aloof! And work—work—work—

Till the stars-shine through the roof! It's O! to be a slave

Along with the barbarous Turk, Where woman has never a soul to save,

If this is Christian work!


Till the brain begins to swim! Work—work—work—

Till the eyes are heavy and dim! Seam, and gusset, and band,

Band, and gusset, and seam,— Till over the buttons I fall asleep,

And sew them on in a dream." (Thomas Hood)

Even a superfluous analysis of the rhythmical structure of this poem clearly shows that the rhythm is mostly founded on stress. In the first line there are seven syllables and three stresses; the second has the same; but the third has ten syllables and four stresses; the fourth—seven and three; the fifth—three and three; and so on. But still we can find a regu­larity in the poem; for most of the lines have three stresses. At more or less regular intervals there appear longer lines with four stresses. Since the unstressed syllables are not taken into consideration, and therefore there are no secondary or tertiary stresses (as in classic verse), the stresses in accented verse are very heavy. The stanzas in this poem are all built on the same pattern: eight lines, each containing two four-stressed lines.

The lines are rhymed alternately. All this makes this verse half accent­ed, half free. In other words, this is borderline verse, the bias being in the direction of accented verse. This is not the case with the following poem by Walt Whitman: "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."

2. "Now I am curious what can ever be more stately and admira­ble to me than my mast-hemm'd Manhattan, My river and sunset, and my scallop-edg'd waves of flood-tide, The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the

twilight, and the belated lighter;

Curious what Gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my highest name as I approach;"

This type of poetry can hardly be called verse from a purely structural point of view; it is that kind of tonic verse which, by neglecting almost all the laws of verse building, has gradually run into prose. But somehow there is still something left of the structural aspect of verse, and this is the sirigling-out of each meaningful word making it conspicuous and self-determinative by the pauses and by the character of the junctures which precede and follow each of these words. Besides this, what makes ,this text poetry is also the selection of words, the peculiar syntactical patterns, and the imagery.

Verse cannot do away with its formal aspects and remain verse. There­fore the extreme type of accented verse just given ceases to be verse as such. If has become what is sometimes called poetic prose.

Accented verse is nothing but an orderly singling-out of certain words and syntagms in the utterance by means of intonation. This singling-out becomes a constituent of this type of verse, provided that the distance between.each of the component parts presents a more or less constant unit. Violation of this principle would lead to the complete destruction of the verse as such.

Accented verse (tonic verse) has a long folklore tradition. Old English verse was tonic but not syllabo-tonic. The latter appeared in English poetry as a borrowing from Greek and Latin poetry, where the alterna­tion was not between stressed and unstressed but between long and short syllables. In the process of being adapted to the peculiarities of the pho­netic and morphological system of the English language, syllabo-tonic verse has undergone considerable changes, and accented verse may there-

fore conventionally be regarded as a stage in the transformational pro­cess of adapting the syllabo-tonic system to the organic norms of modern colloquial English. This is justified by the fact that present-day accented verse is not a mere revival of the Old English poetical system but a newly arranged form and type of English verse. Naturally, however, folklore traditions have influenced modern accented verse in a number of ways.