William Blake Invents Free Verse in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

by ttucker23 on November 25, 2006

Alicia Oistriker, leading Blake authority and editor of the Penguin Complete Poems of William Blake, claims that The Argument (plate 2) of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (see below) is the first example of free verse in English.

THE ARGUMENT

Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden’d air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.

Then the perilous path was planted:
And a river and a spring
On every cliff and tomb:
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth.

Till the villain left the paths of ease,
To walk in perilous paths, and drive
The just man into barren climes.

Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.

Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden’d air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

I wonder if Blake knew what he was initiating. The concept of free verse has enabled so much bad poetry to be written that he might have wished he’d never started the whole thing off. I’m with WH Auden when he said this of free verse:

The poet who writes ‘free’ verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor – dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.

Auden elaborated his views on free verse in an interview in 1971:

There are a few people like D.H. Lawrence, who have to write in free verse. I think they are a minority. Anyone who has played a game, whether it is bridge or baseball, knows you can’t play games without rules. You can make the rules what you like, but your whole fun and freedom come from working within these. Why should poetry be any different? One of the things you so often notice when looking at a lot of poems in free verse is that you can’t tell one author from another, far from thinking one more original. With rules it is so much more fun because they impose some kind of metrical quality, and they often suggest all kinds of things you haven’t thought of before. It does free one a bit from the fetters of oneself.

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