During the early sixteenth century, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, said enough was enough, cocked his quill back, and shot a blank into the bountiful bosom of English rhyming poetry.
Previous to Sir Howard’s daring move, blank verse poetry had been, all the way through the Italian Renaissance, enjoying the circulatory luxuries afforded by fair weather and the positive digestive effects of a Mediterranean diet. Described by some as “clunky,” “wooden,” or “entirely ungifted,” The Earl of Surrey was not always feted for his stellar verse-writing abilities. But his peers’ good-spirited raillery did not stop his becoming one of founding fathers of English Renaissance poetry. It was, in fact, Howard’s translation of a description of quivering seamen at the sight of a battle between Laocoön, the sea-god Neptune’s priest, and a sea-monster in Virgil’s The Aeneid that flipped the ship of English poetic thought:
Whiles Laocon, that chosen was by lot
Neptunus priest, did sacrifice a bull
Before the holy altar, sodenly
From Tenedon, behold, in cirlces great
By the calme seas come fletyng adders twayne
Which plied towardes the shore (I lothe to tell)
With rered (reared) brest lift up above the seas,
Whoes bloody crestes aloft the waves were seen
The hinder parte swamme hidden in the flood;
Their grisly backes were linked manifold.
With sound of broken waves they gate the strand
With gloing eyen, tamed with blood and fire;
Whoes waltring tongs did lick their hissing mouths
We fled away, our face the blood forsoke.
Howard’s orthography is here unstandardized; thus, it is assumed he were besotted at the time of writing—as well as during its submittal for publication. Moreover, one will find here, somewhat refreshingly, no rhyming structure. One need but only ten fingers to translate The Aeneid from Latin into English, nearly every line containing ten syllables, as is the going rate for blank verse.
From there, Christopher Marlowe requested Henry Howard clench his sack, whereupon Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, and subsequently a much better (and drunker) blank verse than the King of Wood ever could. Here is but a snippet:
The starres moove still, time runs, the clocke wil strike,
The divel wil come, and Faustus must be damnd.
O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me down?
See, see where Christs blood streames in the firmament.
And, although John Milton, Robert Browning, Robert Frost, and a gaggle of Moderns have employed the blank verse with great, sometimes breath-taking success, it was with the plays of William Shakespeare that shooting blanks reached a level of immortality. All of Shakespeare’s characters, from obscure farmers to the infamous Falstaff, speak in blank verse poetry, yet they all seem to speak in the tongue of the Everyday—which they indeed do. As always, Shakespeare is able to be two places at once, always able to sashay that mental tightrope of wit. Moreover, Shakespeare, monomaniacally enamored with the blank verse as he was, furthered the thing from its roughneck roots, applying iambic pentameter to every line.
In effect, The Bard might be witnessed rendering one of his stricter bits that contain exactly ten syllables and iambic stress such as the following from the second act of Romeo and Juliet:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
Or, one of his looser, more hair-pushed-back-collar-off-its-stud swangers; that is, the lines hover around ten syllables and sometimes take the iambic pentameter, sometimes not, as in the first three lines of Hamlet’s famous bellyache:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…
And, as it is with all things, all meaning is pregnant with Shakespeare’s words, all existence, whether one is aware of it or not, merely our inhabiting of Shakespeare’s globe.