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What is a Verse?

Updated on March 18, 2011

The term "verse" has been used with widely different meanings. Perhaps its most specific use has been for a single line of metrical composition and, less frequently, for a stanza. It has also been applied to metrical composition in general. While this is an extremely ancient usage, there has always competed with it a third and wider application of the term, to poetry as such. Thus, Plato (Republic) suggests that the essence of poetry is "rhythm, meter and harmony," that whatever is versified is poetry. He is supported by later theorists like Julius Caesar Scaliger and Richard Whately. On the other hand, Aristotle (Poetics) objects that medicine or physical philosophy can be versified but will have nothing in common with Homer except a meter. Many theorists have seconded his objection; Sir Philip Sidney, for example, observes that the elements of verse are only an "ornament and no cause" of poetry. Given, especially, an extensive tradition of didactic and rhetorical work in verse (and now of modern advertising) it seems necessary to agree with these objections.

Thus, a twofold distinction is required. Whatever the basis for the distinction between poetry and prose (it would seem to involve a difference in the structuring of meaning as well as of sound and, ultimately, a different role for structure as such), the distinction between verse and prose can be made rather simply. Verse can be thought of as speech with a regular pattern or structure of sound; this may be of the quantities of sound, as in an iambic meter, or of the qualities of sound, as in rhyme or assonance, or of both these aspects of sound (see versification). Prose is speech without any sustained patterning of these elements. At the extreme of the verse quality, speech presents the effect of repetitiveness and of system. At the extreme of the prose quality, the sound of speech suggests a continuity of difference and a series. But between these extremes, of course, some of the patterns of verse do occasionally occur in prose, as in the consciously cultivated terminal rhythms of Greek and Latin orators.

Similarly, between the extraordinary quality of poetry and the plainness of grammatical statement, there exists the middle ground of rhetoric and literary prose.

If verse is not to be identified completely with poetry, it is clear, nevertheless, that most of its history and development have been in connection with poetic effort. This is particularly true of the definition of basic rhythms and meters and the elaboration of stanzaic forms in the various modern literatures. The beginnings of verse, on the other hand, antedate the most ancient literatures. It is not necessary, however, to assume from the early appearance of verse that "warbling rose/Man's voice in verse before he spoke in prose." It may only be that by the time writing systems were invented, usually relatively late in the history of a language, verse was so highly esteemed that it was committed to written form before prose.


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