free verse

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free verse,

term loosely used for rhymed or unrhymed verse made free of conventional and traditional limitations and restrictions in regard to metrical structure. Cadence, especially that of common speech, is often substituted for regular metrical pattern. Free verse is a literal translation of the French vers libre, which originated in late 19th-century France among poets, such as Arthur RimbaudRimbaud, Arthur
, 1854–91, French poet who had a great influence on the symbolists and subsequent modern poets, b. Charleville. A defiant and precocious youth, Rimbaud at 16 sent some poems to Verlaine, who liked his work and invited him to Paris.
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 and Jules LaforgueLaforgue, Jules
, 1860–87, French symbolist poet. He was one of the first French poets to write in free verse. The revolutionary form of Les Complaintes (1885) and Derniers Vers (1890) influenced later French poets as well as such foreign poets as T. S.
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, who sought to free poetry from the metrical regularity of the alexandrinealexandrine
, in prosody, a line of 12 syllables (or 13 if the last syllable is unstressed). Its name probably derives from the fact that some poems of the 12th and 13th cent. about Alexander the Great were written in this meter.
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. The term has also been applied by modern literary critics to the King James translation of the Bible, particularly the Song of Solomon and the Psalms, to certain poems of Matthew ArnoldArnold, Matthew,
1822–88, English poet and critic, son of the educator Dr. Thomas Arnold.

Arnold was educated at Rugby; graduated from Balliol College, Oxford in 1844; and was a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford in 1845.
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, and to the irregular poetry of Walt WhitmanWhitman, Walt
(Walter Whitman), 1819–92, American poet, b. West Hills, N.Y. Considered by many to be the greatest of all American poets, Walt Whitman celebrated the freedom and dignity of the individual and sang the praises of democracy and the brotherhood of man.
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's Leaves of Grass. The form is also closely associated with English and American poets of the 20th cent. who sought greater liberty in verse structure, including Ezra PoundPound, Ezra Loomis,
1885–1972, American poet, critic, and translator, b. Hailey, Idaho, grad. Hamilton College, 1905, M.A. Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1906. An extremely important influence in the shaping of 20th-century poetry, he was one of the most famous and controversial
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, T. S. EliotEliot, T. S.
(Thomas Stearns Eliot), 1888–1965, American-British poet and critic, b. St. Louis, Mo. One of the most distinguished literary figures of the 20th cent., T. S. Eliot won the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature. He studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford.
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, William Carlos WilliamsWilliams, William Carlos,
1883–1963, American poet and physician, b. Rutherford, N.J., educated in Geneva, Switzerland, Univ. of Pennsylvania (M.D., 1906), and Univ. of Leipzig, where he studied pediatrics.
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, Carl SandburgSandburg, Carl,
1878–1967, American poet, journalist, and biographer, b. Galesburg, Ill. The son of poor Swedish immigrants, he left school at the age of 13 and became a day laborer.
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, and Marianne MooreMoore, Marianne,
1887–1972, American poet, b. St. Louis, grad. Bryn Mawr College, 1909. She lived mostly in New York City, working first as a librarian and then as editor of the Dial magazine (1925–29).
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Free Verse


(vers libre) a system of versification whose principles have not been fully elucidated. The various types of free verse differ from prose only by virtue of their arrangement into lines and the resulting interlinear pauses.

Free verse is distinguished from traditional verse forms by alternation of lines of varying length, absence of rhyme, and relative irregularity of accent and of intervals between accents. On the other hand, the syllabic composition, accentual system, and syntactic unity of free verse link it to such traditional forms of national poetry as the syllabotonic and tonic in Russia, the alexandrine in France, and the Knittelverse (national tetrameter) and German hexameter in Germany.

Free verse is generally used in epic works, in works dealing with philosophic problems, and in works devoted to reminiscences.

Factors influencing the development of free verse have included colloquial speech, folk poetry, biblical and liturgical verse, an increasingly limited rhyme repertoire, and the need to renew verse. Foreign literary works have also played a role through translations, imitations, and a quest for native metric and rhythmic equivalents.

The term “vers libre” was introduced by the French poet G. Kahn in 1884, although free verse had been written since the second half of the 18th century by Goethe, J. C. F. Hölderlin, and Heine in Germany, Blake and Whitman in England and the USA, respectively, and A. P. Sumarokov in Russia.

During the 19th century, isolated examples of free verse were written in Russia by V. A. Zhukovskii, A. A. Del’vig, F. N. Glinka, M. Iu. Lermontov, A. A. Fet, and M. L. Mikhailov; Mikhailov translated Heine’s free-verse cycle The North Sea into Russian.

Free verse first became popular in the 1870’s, increasing in importance in the 20th century with the works of A. Rimbaud, J. Laforgue, H. de Régnier, E. Verhaeren, G. Apollinaire, P. Eluard, F. T. Marinetti, T. S. Eliot, J. R. Becher, Pablo Neruda, and Nazim Hikmet Ran.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many examples of free verse were written in Russia by A. M. Dobroliubov, A. A. Blok, M. A. Kuzmin, V. V. Khlebnikov, and the artist N. K. Roerich. Contemporary Russian free verse, which became important particularly after the late 1950’s, has been written by E. M. Vinokurov, V. A. Soloukhin, and D. S. Samoilov. In other literatures free verse is represented by E. Mezhelaitis, I. F. Drach, and M. Tank. The principles of free verse are the subject of continuing study by specialists.


Zhovtis, A. L. “O kriteriiakh tipologicheskoi kharakteristiki svobodnogo stikha (Obzor problemy).” Voprosy iazykoznaniia, 1970, no. 2.
Mamonov, A. I. Svobodnyi stikh v iaponskoi poezii. Moscow, 1971.
Baevskii, V. S. “O prirode russkogo svobodnogo stikha.” In his book Stikh russkoi sovetskoi poezii. Smolensk, 1972.
“Ot chego ne svoboden svobodnyi stikh?” Voprosy literatury, 1972, no. 2.
Hrushovski, B. “On Free Rhythmus in Modern Poetry.” In Style in Language. New York-London, 1960.
Czerny, Ł. “Le Vers libre français et son art structural.” In the collection Poetics, Poetyka, Poetika. Warsaw, 1961.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

free verse

unrhymed verse without a metrical pattern
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005