Free Verse

Free Verse does not use any particular pattern of stress or number of syllables per line. It is a type of verse that has been widely used only since the twentieth century. Although without regular metre, it is not without rhythmic effects and organisation. Free verse can be organised around syntactic units, word or sound repetitions, or the rhythm created by a line break.

Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
some learning later ...
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
(From: Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley)

Pound uses anaphora, rhyme (adventure/censure), word repetitions and the effects of pauses created through line breaks to organise his verse.

Maximisation Principle and Metrical Grid

It is not always easy to determine a metrical pattern. In fact, quite frequently a series of syllables allows for more than one arrangement of accents. Consider the phrase

Nature in her then err’d not but forgot.

This could be scanned 1o o 1 o 1 o 1 o1 (NAture in HER then ERR’D not BUT forGOT). But with similar justification it could be scanned 1o o 1 o o 1 o o1 (NAture in HER then err’d NOT but forGOT). In fact, the second possibility seems rather better since it would appear to be regular dactyl.

When such an ambiguous line (ambiguous as to metrical pattern) occurs in a poem, the lines around this problem line need to be taken into consideration when deciding on the metre. The basic rule to go by is that unless there are insurmountable arguments against it, any line should be scanned so it fits the pattern of the lines around it. Consider our troublesome line in context:

‘Yet Cloe sure was form’d without a spot -’
Nature in her then err’d not but forgot.
‘With ev’ry pleasing, ev’ry prudent part,
Say, what can Cloe want?’ – she wants a Heart.
She speaks, behaves, and acts just as she ought;
But never, never, reach’d one gen’rous Thought.
Virtue she finds too painful an endeavour,
Content to dwell in Decencies for ever.
(From: Pope, Epistle to a Lady, 157-164)

The lines surrounding our problematic line are all very clearly iambic (except maybe the line ”Say, what can Cloe want? […]” which seems to be iambic with one spondee at the beginning). Because we have a tendency to continue a particular rhythm once it has been started – change is always unsettling – we almost automatically continue to scan according to the pattern that has already been set. Decisions about the metrical pattern of a poem are thus governed by what Rulon Wells has called the maximisation principle, the dominant metrical pattern is the one that has to make the least exceptions (see Ludwig 1990: 55). In our example above, rather than saying the first line is iambic, the second dactyllic, the third iambic, etc., we say the poem is iambic with two irregularities in initial position (lines 158 and 160).

On the basis of the maximisation principle we tend to establish a metrical grid (term from Fowler 1968, see also the discussion in Ludwig 1990: 47) in our heads, that is, we form the expectation of a certain pattern and once it is established, we expect it to continue. The whole poem is read against this metrical grid and it is on this basis that deviations are noted.

Metrical Deviations

A poem that scanned with absolute regularity would more than likely jingle on in insufferable tedium. This danger is circumvented by little deviations that break the regular pattern of the metrical grid. Metrical deviations are created

by substitution
and in recitation.

Because metrical deviations go against our expectations (they break the metrical grid we have formed in our minds), such places are more noticeable than others. The tension that is created between the abstract metrical grid and the actual linguistic and metrical realisation is called interplay (the term was introduced by Wimsatt and Beardsley 1959, see discussion in Ludwig 1990: 38). Places of interplay deserve special attention in analysis because they usually have a definite function in conveying the meaning of a poem.


To break the monotony of regular metre poets often substitute one metrical foot from a regular pattern with another. For example in a series of iambic feet one might find a spondee or a trochee as in the following example:

What dire Offence from am’rous Causes springs,
What mighty Contests rise from trivial things,
I sing – this Verse to Caryll, Muse! is due;
This ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the Subject, but not so the Praise,
If She inspire, and He approve my Lays.
(From: Pope, Rape of the Lock, 1-6)

These lines are fairly regular iambic pentameter except the beginning of line 5 “Slight is”, which is a trochaic foot. This not only breaks the monotony of the iambic pentameter (broken once before by the caesura in line 3) but it is also rather witty because it puts an unexpected emphasis on “Slight”, which semantically indicates that it deserves little emphasis.


It is important to remember that a person reciting a poem is most likely to deviate from the regular metrical pattern – at least, one would hope so. Most notably, a division into two types of stress (stressed and not stressed) is an extreme simplification of what actually happens. In regular speech and recitation there are not merely stressed and non-stressed syllables but a number of gradations between the two: specially stressed, normally stressed, half-stressed, little stressed, etc. Sometimes the stress placed by the metrical pattern will be ignored for certain effects, pauses are made or not made, etc. Consider the following example:

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing Heavenly Muse […]
(From: Milton, Paradise Lost, Bk. I)

This poem is written in blank verse but it is almost impossible to recite it with a regular iambic pattern. The first line could be more easily read like this: Of MAN’s FIRST (half-stress) disoBEdience (pause) and the FRUIT of that forBIDd’n TREE (pause) whose MORtal TASTE etc. There are obviously other possibilities. A recitation is always an interpretation of the poem and there is no one possible recitation, though metre and rhythm set certain limits within which individual interpretations can operate (see discussion under Modulation and audio example there).



    • free verse
maximisation    principle
metrical grid
metrical   deviation