Poetry that is based on the irregular rhythmic CADENCE or the recurrence, with variations, of phrases, images, and syntactical patterns rather than the conventional use of METER. RHYME may or may not be present in free verse, but when it is, it is used with great freedom. In conventional VERSE the unit is the FOOT, or the line; in free verse the units are larger, sometimes being paragraphs or strophes. If the free verse unit is the line, as it is in Whitman, the line is determined by qualities of RHYTHM and thought rather than FEET or syllabic count.
Such use of CADENCE as a basis for POETRY is very old. The poetry of the Bible, particularly in the King James Version, which attempts to approximate the Hebrew CADENCES, rests on CADENCE and PARALLELISM. The Psalms and The Song of Solomon are noted examples of free verse. Milton sometimes substituted rhythmically constructed VERSE paragraphs for metrically regular lines, notably in the CHORUSES of Samson Agonistes, as this example shows:
But patience is more oft the exercise
Of Saints, the trial of thir fortitude,
Making them each his own Deliver,
And Victor over all
That tyranny or fortune can inflict.
Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was a major experiment in cadenced rather than metrical VERSIFICATION. The following lines are typical:
All truths wait in all things
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it,
They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon.
Matthew Arnold sometimes used free verse, notably in "Dover Beach." But it was the French poets of the late nineteenth century --Rimbaud, Laforgue, Viele-Griffln, and others--who, in their revolt against the tyranny of strict French VERSIFICATION, established the Vers libre movement, from which the name free verse comes.
In the twentieth century free verse has had widespread usage by most poets, of whom Rilke, St.-John Perse, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, and William Carlos Williams are representative. Such a list indicates the great variety of subject matter, effect and TONE that is possible in free verse, and shows that it is much less a rebellion against traditional English METRICS than a modification and extension of the resources of our language.