How to Write Poems – Chapter 9: Blank Verse

Contents | Chapter 10: Heroic Couplets

In this chapter, we’ll read a description of hell from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Milton (1608-1674) used blank verse to write his poem. Blank verse is poetry that doesn’t rhyme, but which is metered. It is usually written in iambic pentameter. (Free verse is poetry that usually doesn’t have any fixed rhyme or meter.) Milton used blank verse, and Shakespeare, likewise, used blank verse in his plays.

After reading the selection, we will write our own blank verse poem about the Spirit of Christmas Present and the spirit’s surroundings. We won’t worry about making the poem rhyme. Our only concern will be in converting our description into iambic pentameter.

“Paradise Lost” is a long epic poem written by John Milton. The poem expands on the Bible story of the fall, found in the book of Genesis. The story includes the figures of God, Satan, Adam, and Eve. Adam and Eve are tempted by Satan and eat fruit from the forbidden tree. God sends them out of paradise, but tells them of a future Savior. Milton wrote the poem using blank verse. The selection below is Milton’s description of hell.

At once as far as Angels kenn [see] he views

The dismal Situation waste and wilde,

A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round

As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible

Serv’d only to discover sights of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all; but torture without end

Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed

With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:

By scanning the first four lines, we can see that the verses are written in iambic pentameter (wSwSwSwSwS). The third line, however, contains a pyrrhic (ww) substitution in the third foot (“ible”):

At once//as far/as An-/gels kenn//he views

The dis-/mal Sit-/ua-/tion//waste/and wilde,

A Dun-/geon horr-/ible,//on all/sides round

As one/great Fur-/nace flam’d,//yet from/those flames

Questions to ponder: How many cases of enjambment can you find in the selection? (Enjambment is the continuation of a thought from one line to the next without a pause.) Does this enjambment affect the flow of the poem? Can you detect the rhythm that is inherent in the iambic pentameter? Do you think that blank verse might be easier to write than poetry that rhymes? Do you think that blank verse is appropriate for long epic poems?

Now we will write a descriptive poem about the Spirit of Christmas Present and its surroundings. Dickens begins by describing Scrooge’s room and how it had been changed:

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.

Next, Dickens describes the spirit:

“Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in! and know me better, man!”

Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Scrooge he had been; and though the Spirit’s eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me!”

Scrooge reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.

Now let’s put the description of the room into blank verse. Here is the part about the greenery:

The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there;

We can say,

The room was covered with green plants (8)

We need to add two syllables and put the line into iambic pentameter.

On walls and ceiling grew a living green (10)

Next, we can describe the ivy and its berries.

The vines and ivy held bright berries (9)

We need to add one syllable and put the line into iambic pentameter.

Exercise: How would you edit the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write it this way:

The vines and ivy shone with berries bright

Now we can describe how the leaves reflected the light like mirrors.

The green leaves mirrored the light of the room (10)

Revising, we can write this:

The light was mirrored by the leaves of green

Continuing:

And sparkled like a million small pieces of glass (12)

We need to remove two syllables and revise the line.

Exercise: How would you revise the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write it this way:

And sparkled like a million shards of glass

This is what we have so far:

On walls and ceiling grew a living green

The vines and ivy shone with berries bright

The light was mirrored by the leaves of green

And sparkled like a million shards of glass

Next, we need to describe the food on the floor. This is how Dickens describes it:

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

We can say,

And piled around the spirit, forming a throne (11)

We have too many syllables.

Exercise: How would you revise the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write it this way:

And piled around the spirit was a throne (10)

Now we need to continue the thought on the next line. We need to say what the throne was made of.

Of many kinds of food it was made (9)

We need to add one syllable. We need to replace “made” with a two-syllable word that has a stress on the second syllable, or add a one-syllable word before “made.” There may not be a good way to revise the end of the line, so we can revise the whole line.

And piled around the spirit was a throne

All kinds of food together formed the throne

Now we need to list the kinds of food that formed the throne.

Some turkeys, geese, and poultry; pigs and pies

And sausage, oysters, apples, nuts and pears

Now we should write something about the cakes, punch, and steam:

To top it off, there were also some cakes (10)

We need to revise the line to make the stresses alternate.

Exercise: How would you revise the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write it this way:

To top it off, some cakes were also there

Next, we can talk about the punch bowl:

And there was steaming punch bubbling out of the bowls (12)

We need to revise the line and remove two syllables.

Exercise: How would you revise the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write it this way:

And steaming punch was bubbling out of bowls

Now we need to describe the spirit. This is Dickens’ description:

In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door….

…It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles.

We can start the description this way:

The “Jolly Giant” sat upon a couch (10)

And held a torch like Plenty’s horn (8)

We need to add two syllables to the second line.

Exercise: How would you revise the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write this:

And held a torch up high like Plenty’s horn (10)

Next, we need to tell what the spirit was wearing:

It wore a mantle, green and having edges of fur (13)

Or,

It wore a mantle green, with white edges (10)

We need to revise.

Exercise: How would you revise the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write it this way:

It wore a mantle green, with edges white (10)

Next, we need to describe its chest, feet, and head:

Its feet and chest were bare; a holly wreath (10)

Did deck its head, with shiny ice adorned (10)

The last two lines illustrate the use of enjambment, that is, the continuation of a thought over two or more lines (“a holly wreath did deck its head”).

Finally, we have this description:

…Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.

Its brown and curly locks hung free (8)

We need to add two syllables and revise.

Exercise: How would you revise the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write it this way:

Its brown and curly locks did hang unbound (10)

Now we can describe its face and voice:

As free, its friendly face and sparkling eyes (10)

Its voice and manner: joyful, cheery, kind (10)

Finally, we should say something about its sheath:

It wore around its waist an old scabbard (10)

We need to revise the line to make it conform to iambic pentameter.

Exercise: How would you revise the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can change the word order in this way:

It wore around its waist a scabbard old (10)

Finally:

There was no sword in the rusty sheath (9)

We need to revise the line.

Exercise: How would you revise the line above to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write it this way:

No sword was held within the rusty sheath (10)

Now let’s put it all together and add punctuation.

On walls and ceiling grew a living green;

The vines and ivy shone with berries bright.

The light was mirrored by the leaves of green,

And sparkled like a million shards of glass,

And piled around the spirit was a throne.

All kinds of food together formed the throne:

Some turkeys, geese, and poultry; pigs and pies,

And sausage, oysters, apples, nuts and pears.

To top it off, some cakes were also there,

And steaming punch was bubbling out of bowls.

The “Jolly Giant” sat upon a couch,

And held a torch up high like Plenty’s horn.

It wore a mantle green, with edges white;

Its feet and chest were bare; a holly wreath

Did deck its head, with shiny ice adorned.

Its brown and curly locks did hang unbound,

As free, its friendly face and sparkling eyes;

Its voice and manner: joyful, cheery, kind.

It wore around its waist a scabbard old;

No sword was held within the rusty sheath.

Contents | Chapter 10: Heroic Couplets