in verse # 20 : blank verse

Blank verse — the unrhymed iambic pentameter so brilliantly deployed by Shakespeare in his later plays — is an invention of the English renaissance, and specifically of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47), who used it to revise and strengthen a translation of books 2 and 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid[i] originally made by Gavin Douglas in Scottish English.  Both[ii] were unpublished in Surrey’s lifetime.  As Brooke and Shaaber have it, “Blank verse first appears in English poetry in the version of the fourth book of the Aeneid which was printed about 1554 with a title-page describing it as ‘translated into English, and drawn into a straunge metre, by Henry, late Earl of Surrey.’”[iii]  The meaning of “strange” employed on this title page  is one little used now:  “Not of one’s own or a particular locality, environment, or kind; exotic.”[iv]  In fact, it is probably a meaning marked archaic in my dictionary:  “Alien or foreign.”  The Literary history of England states that it is unknown whether Surrey knew Douglas’s translation — but asserts “that he got the hint for his ‘strange metre’ from Italy, whence strange metres usually came, can hardly be doubted.”[v]  On the first point, The new Princeton Encyclopedia of poetry and poetics says unequivocally that “Surrey knew Gavin Douglas’s Scottish tr[anslation] (written, in rhymed couplets, ca. 1513; pub. 1553); as much as 40% of Surrey’s diction is taken directly from Douglas.”[vi]  And on the second point, the latter is positively expansive:

 B[lank] v[erse] first appeared in It[alian] poetry of the Ren[aissance] as an unrhymed variant of the endecasillabo … then was transplanted to England as the unrhymed decasyllabic or iambic pentameter.  Though these lines are thought to have derived metrically from the Cl[assical] iambic trimeter, they were designed to produce, in the vernaculars, equivalents in tone and weight of the Cl. “heroic” line, the line of the epic, the hexameter (q.v.).  The unrhymed endecasillabo, while popular and important, never became a major It. meter; in England, however, b. v. became, under the influence of Shakespeare and Milton, the staple meter of Eng. dramatic verse and a major meter of nondramatic verse as well.[vii]

 So an Italian experiment in an eleven-syllable unrhymed line gets picked up by an English youth eager to improve a Scottish translation of a Latin epic.  But it gets better.  “Surrey,” the New Princeton encyclopedia assures us, “develops — in part, perhaps, to offset absent rhyme — an extensive network of sound patterning.”[viii]  Nothing further is said about this network of sound patterning, but perhaps some of it may be deduced from this selection from Surrey’s translation:

Then from the seas the dawning gan arise.
The sun once up, the chosen youth gan throng
Unto the gates; the hayes so rarely knit,
The hunting staves with their broad heads of steel,
And of Massile the horsemen, forth they brake;
Of scenting hounds a kennel huge likewise.
And at the threshold of her chamber door
The Carthage lords did there the queen await;
The trampling steed, with gold and purple decked,
Chawing the foamy bit, there fiercely stood.
Then issued she, backed with a great rout,
Clad in a cloak of Tyre embroidered rich.
Her quiver hung behind her back, her tresses
Wound up with gold, her purple vestures eke
Buttoned with gold.  The Troyans of her train
Before her go, with gladsome Iulus.
Aeneas eke, the goodliest of the rout,
Makes one of them and joineth close the throngs….[ix]

In this selection, note that in “gan” and “gates” he is alliterating unstressed syllables with stressed.  And although Surrey missed a chance at alliterative revival by choosing “hayes” instead of “nets,” note that the former alliterates with the later stressed syllables “hunting” and “heads” and “horsemen” and “hounds” and finally the whisper of “h” in “threshold.”  Surrey picks up again with the aitches, this time alliterating on stressed and unstressed syllables, in the line “Her quiver hung behind her back, her tresses” — with only “hung” and “-hind” stressed.

I could point out more instances of alliteration, in both the Anglo-Saxon and Welsh modes, but you can pick them out, too.  Instead, I want to emphasize the difference between Surrey’s blank verse and its Italian model.  Again from the New Princeton encyclopedia we read “Surrey also surely knew Luigi Alamanni’s Rime toscane (pub. 1532) and other famous It. works in versi sciolti, (i.e. versi sciolti da rima, ‘verse freed from rhyme’…) such as Trissino’s tragedy Sophonisba (1515) and epic Italia liberata dai Goti (pub. 1547) or Liburnio’s 1534 tr[anslation] of Virgil or the 1539 tr. by the de’Medici circle.”  I hesitate to point out the weasely “Surrey also surely knew,” which seems a scholar’s way of saying “I sure hope Surrey knew [X], because it seems to fit” — but I will, because he might have heard of them, especially during his stay in France when he was 15 and 16, but might not have read them all.  Surrey was part of the royal circle around Henry VIII, and had been raised as a companion to the latter’s illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset,[x] so he would have been exposed to a great deal of continental culture, but not “surely” to these particular items.

What he might have been exposed to is the idea of a verse form without rhyme.  I think this likely because the New Princeton encyclopedia goes on to differentiate versi sciolti from blank verse thus:  “But the It. versi ‘freed’ from rhyme are hendecasyllables (q.v.), technically of 11 syllables but permissibly also of 9 or 10, and with only one required stress in each hemistich, whereas Surrey clearly intended to produce, in Eng., an alternating (iambic) rhythm in a strict 10-syllable line.”[xi]  You will recall, if you’ve hung around this long, that in an Anglo-Saxon alliterative line there are 4 strong stresses, rather than “one required stress in each hemistich” or half line.  But if you again read the lines above from Surrey’s Aeneid, you should agree with the New Princeton encyclopedia that he is counting on a 10-syllable line with five unstressed syllables alternating with five strong stresses.  You have to sound the third syllable in “issued” to get its line to 10 syllables (or the second syllable in “backed”), but that seems intended.  What he’s not doing is merely counting syllables, even in the line “Her quiver hung behind her back, her tresses,” which has 11 syllables unless you suppress the last one.  The iambic rhythm is intentionally there, and it reflects the stress-syllabic features of English speech.

Here again the New Princeton encyclopedia asserts that “Behind Surrey of course stand Chaucer and Wyatt:  Chaucer had mastered the Eng. decasyllable over a century earlier, but the rhythm of his verse was lost to Eng. ears in the 15th c. by virtue of phonological changes.  From Wyatt’s sonnets and sonnet trs. Surrey could have learned a great deal, but there is much irregularity in Wyatt, and all of his verse is rhymed.”[xii]  And even A literary history of England piles on here, to add “The verse form to which Surrey was most addicted is the iambic couplet of twelve and fourteen syllables alternately, for which George Gascoigne invented … [the name] ‘Poulter’s Measure’…. Of the eighteen poems — nearly a thousand lines in all — that Surrey wrote in poulter’s measure, about half were translations from Ecclesiastes and the Psalms.”[xiii]  But Wikipedia portrays a different relationship between Surrey and Wyatt, one which neither of the other sources notes:

He and his friend Sir Thomas Wyatt were the first English poets to write in the sonnet form that Shakespeare later used, and Surrey was the first English poet to publish blank verse in his translation of the second and fourth books of Virgil’s Aeneid. Together, Wyatt and Surrey, due to their excellent translations of Petrarch’s sonnets, are known as “Fathers of the English Sonnet”. While Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it was Surrey who gave them the rhyming meter and the division into quatrains that now characterizes the sonnets variously named English, Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnets.[xiv]

If it is true that Surrey invented the English sonnet, this would be as great a contribution as inventing blank verse.  Wikipedia offers two sources for its assertion, both on the web.  One is Shakespeare Navigators[xv] and the other is Early English Sonnets.[xvi]

Shakespeare Navigators presents as evidence for this claim of invention another posthumous publication by Surrey:

The craze for sonnets began June 5, 1557, with publication by Richard Tottel of SONGES AND SONNETTES, written by the rhyght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other. This book (now usually referred to as ‘Tottel’s Miscellany’) was the first collection of poetry ever printed in English, and it was an immediate hit…. The star poet of Tottel’s Miscellany, the Earl of Surrey, created the English sonnet form by modifying Petrarch’s sonnet form. (The English sonnet is also called the Shakespearean sonnet, but that’s only because Shakespeare is so famous.) The form which Surrey created (three quatrains in alternate rhyme and a concluding couplet) is easier to write in English than the Petrarchan form, which has a more complicated rhyme scheme.

I might have to assume that the evidence for that claim of invention is the poems themselves, because I don’t have access to a copy of the book.  Luckily for me, Lamson and Smith agree with both these sources, saying “He established the so-called English or Shakespearean form of the sonnet, consisting of three quatrains and a couplet.”[xvii]  More importantly, they address the nature of Surrey’s contribution beyond the form:

His versification seems more modern than that of his master Wyatt, because he kept the accent of the line on the natural accent of the word, and he is less “rough” and often more eloquent than Wyatt.  This means usually that he has learned something about pauses within the line, and about the smooth flow obtained by running one line over into the next without a pause [called enjambment].  His debt to Wyatt he freely and gladly acknowledged; but his own contribution in making English verse modern and mellifluous had a greater influence than Wyatt’s on the poets of the Elizabethan age.[xviii]

 So:  we have a restless young nobleman (actually with a clearer claim to the throne than Henry VIII), cousin to Catherine Howard (Henry’s third wife), married at nineteen and father to a son, learning to work with and understand the Petrarchan sonnet, who not only Anglicizes that Italian form but also works to invent a variant in English of the decasyllabic line Chaucer mastered, but whose accomplishment had been lost due to phonological change, and who is dead before his thirtieth birthday, of whom the New Princeton encyclopedia says:

The precise nature of Surrey’s metrical accomplishment is still not entirely understood, and the two features of the b.-v. line — the metrical structure and the forgoing of rhyme — are quite different issues.  If Surrey sought to appropriate features of It. verseform to Eng., they would of course be naturalized in Eng. rhythms.  It remains to be shown precisely how the rhythms in Surrey’s lines derived from the ones native to the It. endecasillabo.[xix]

Still proceeding on the assumption that Surrey had to have derived blank verse in English from the Italian hendecasyllabic line, the editors nonetheless admit that such a derivation has not been demonstrated.  At least they don’t suggest that someone else wrote Surrey’s poems.  But they redeem themselves with the next paragraph, and I am going to quote that entire paragraph because it makes their argument better than I can in summary:

As b. v. developed in Eng., generic considerations also became important.  Clearly verse without rhyme is esp. suited to long works, permitting an idea to be expressed at whatever length is appropriate, not imposing on the lang. a repeated structure of couplet or stanza which would tend to produce conformity in syntactic structures as well.  The omission of rhyme promoted continuity, sustained articulation, enjambment, and relatively natural word order.  It permitted, on the other hand, the deliberate use of syntactic inversion, an effect comparable to the hyperbaton (q.v.) of Cl. verse.  Relatively natural word order made b. v. a fitting vehicle for drama; inversion, suspension, and related stylistic devices suited it to epic.[xx]

 I’m not sure I agree that “verse without rhyme is esp. suited to long works,” although John Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s Commedia demonstrates how hard it is to translate a long rhyming work into vernacular American English.  But I think the rest of the description is fairly accurate.  I find the conclusion fits the next two poets whose verse I want to discuss:  Shakespeare and Milton.  But I don’t want to leave Surrey without noting that there was a very good reason all his publications were posthumous:  his enemies in the court of the dying Henry VIII had him executed on charges of treason.  Both he and his father were charged and convicted, but Henry died before he could execute the elder Howard.  Lamson and Smith summarize his life this way:  “The most brilliant of courtiers, the finest poet in English since Chaucer, he immediately became a figure of romantic legend.”[xxi]

But hold on, I hear you say; aren’t all poets figures of romantic legend?

Your turn.


[i] that is, according to The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics / edited by Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan ; Frank J. Warnke, O.B. Hardison, Jr., and Earl Miner, associate editors.  — New York : MJF Books, c1993.  The entry on “Blank Verse” begins in page 137 and runs through 141.  Much of what follows in this post derives from this source.

[ii] Both Douglas’s translation and his.

[iii] A literary history of England / edited by Albert C. Baugh. – 2nd ed.  Book II : the Renaissance (1500-1660) / Tucker Brooke, Matthias A. Shaaber. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1948, c1967.  The passage quoted is on p. 344.

[iv] The illustrated Heritage dictionary and information book. – Boston : Houghton Mifflin, c1977 (a re-issue of the American heritage dictionary with additional information sources bound in).

[v] Op. cit., 344.

[vi] Op. cit., 138.

[vii] Ibid., 137.  When quoting this source, I will expand only the first occurrence of an abbreviation; it uses them heavily.

[viii] Ibid., 138.

[ix] Renaissance England : poetry and prose from the Reformation to the Restoration / selected and edited by Roy Lamson and Hallett Smith. – New York : Norton, c1956 (p. 75).

[x] All these biographical details come from Wikipedia, “Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey” (,_Earl_of_Surrey), accessed 24 August 2012.

[xi] Op. cit., 138.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Op. cit., 344-45.

[xiv] Op. cit.

[xv], accessed 24 August 2012.

[xvi], accessed 24 August 2012.

[xvii] Op. cit., p. 63; Lamson and Smith add that “Many of his poems in Tottel are also extant in manuscript” which helps establish not only his priority but the text he intended.

[xviii] Ibid., pp. 63-64

[xix] Op cit., p. 138

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Op. cit., p. 63.

9 Thoughts on “in verse # 20 : blank verse

  1. Dear Abby,

    I have a love-hate thing with blank verse. It comes out naturally, but I’m self-conscious about the steady rhythm.

    Iamb What Iamb

  2. Dennis Clark on August 25, 2012 at 1:07 am said:

    Dear Mark:

    Iambic pentameter is but one element of blank verse. Embrace the blankness and the hate in your love-hate relationship will sprout wings and fly away, leaving you in love with your inner iamb.

    What iamb am i?

  3. Ronn! Blankenship on August 25, 2012 at 6:54 pm said:


  4. Ronn! Blankenship on August 25, 2012 at 6:56 pm said:

    Apparently the comment software doesn’t like true blank ( ) verse . . .

    • Dennis Clark on August 25, 2012 at 9:12 pm said:

      Or maybe it’s just blankenship that it abhors?

      Abhors! Abhors! My kingdom for abhors!

      • Surely this isn’t the first time you’ve used that pun, Dennis? Or have you really been waiting all this time to use it?

      • Dennis Clark on August 27, 2012 at 10:21 pm said:

        Actually, I’d never considered the pun (which pun? the one he abhors?) before finding this context. No pun worthy of the word exists before its context calls it forth.


  5. Pingback: in verse # 83 : Christmas in the Bunk-House | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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