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
says that she is made of truth, ^
I do believe her,
though I know she lies ^
that she might think me
unlearned in the
world’s false subtleties ^
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
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
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
3 Lines which show grammatical parallelism
4 Lines with the same number of syllables, different numbers
5 Any of the above plus rhyme
6 Analyse the basis of these lines. What makes them verse?
And I rode.
She be there when I
arrived, would the world’s end keep
its promise to
me and issue up
The sea tell me
the truth, and,
Sahing so, its words
wturn to my girl? But no-one
Can say as I
I was not
glad, . . . (Jon Silkin)