What makes a verse line?



In traditional forms of English verse the line is measured by number, hence the Shakespeare term of 'numbers' for verses.  A verse line is a unit of so many  one or more of the following:

·         syllables  (Matthew Francis)

·         stresses   (Arthur Waley)

·         stresses and syllables  (Shakespeare's blank verse)

·         stresses and alliterations (Beowulf)

This form of verse is often also marked  by an rhyme to tag the end of the line    Often the line of verse corresponds to a unit of grammar, and so ends with a punctuation mark, or natural pause.

These lines are called 'end-stopped' and involve a natural pause. This pause can be counted as a further 'silent' stress between the lines.


So in this line from Shakespeare's sonnet, we can count 5 stresses, and ten syllables, and also a 'silent' stress after the end of the wording.line

       When my love[1] says that she is made of truth,  ^

I do believe her, though I know she lies   ^

that she might think me some untutored youth ^

unlearned in the world’s false subtleties ^


So there are, six beats to consider here.  The poet has the option of varyiation by suppressing the line-end pause and making the line ‘run on’, or  increasing the pause by having a ‘weak’ ending, that is, adding an extra unstressed syllable at the end of the line before the pause.  Or a mix of these.


This all fits in under the general heading of ‘parallelism’ mentioned last time.  Each line is ‘the same’ in so far as it’s rhythm goes, but ‘different’ insofar as its wording goes.

Translations of the Bible introduce a further kind of parallelism which is connected to rhythm but based on grammatical rather than sound patterning, as in the Psalms.  This kind of verse can tap into the rhetorical forced that repetition has in English, as we see in speeches such as the ‘beaches’ one by Churchill, or Martin Luther King’s ‘dream’ speech.  Why repetition should have this emotive effect is an interesting question.  But it brings us back to parallelism in general, and the fact that poetry, also, is associated with emotional speech.

But on the whole, here too, there is a final pause at the ends of lines.

With the rise of free verse the idea of ‘numbers’ was dropped, as also (usually) rhyme, so all that remained was the idea of the silent stress at the end of the line, and even this could be dropped.   In practice and often, I suspect unconsciously, the Psalm like type of grammatical parallelism shapes free verse. 


The key question in free verse (as in fact in all verse) is how you manage the line-ends.   In metrical verse the last word, often the rhyme word, has to carry a marked stress.  A characteristic of bad verse is that the rhyme word seems to have been contrive only for it’s rhyme.  In good verse the last words in the lines are the most important rhythmically.

However there are forms of free verse in which line end does not seem to be important, or is important only semantically, and/or in which the line becomes a purely visual unit on the page, perhaps even just a signal meaning ‘this is poetry so read in the way you read poetry.’






Write out any short passage of speech or prose and then transform it into each of the following lines

1       Five stresses per line

2       Ten alternative unstressed and stressed syllables (iambi  pentameter)

3       Lines which show grammatical parallelism

4       Lines with the same number of syllables, different   numbers of stress

5       Any of the above plus rhyme

6       Analyse the basis of these lines.  What makes them   verse?

         And I rode.  Would

She be there when I arrived, would the world’s end keep

         its promise to me and issue up

              My love?  Would


         The sea tell me the truth, and,

Sahing so, its words wturn to my girl?  But no-one

         Can say as I wnet

             I was not glad, . . .   (Jon Silkin)






[1] We mentioned last time that there is sometimes a disparity between the metrical frame and natural stress, so we have an effect akin to syncopation in music.  The metre requires stress on  ‘my’, but natural sense favours ‘love’