What Is a Fixed Verse?

A. Leverkuhn

Fixed verse is a type of poetry that predominated for many centuries within English-speaking writing communities and other contemporary cultures; the essential aspect of this broad category of writing is that it has a fixed meter, or number of syllables in each line, along with required rhyming. Fixed poetry is also often called structured poetry because writers are expected to adhere to strict guidelines regarding the lengths of lines of poetry, as well as rhyming conventions.

Shakespeare used iambic pentameter, which requires a specific number of syllables per line, making it a form of fixed verse.
Shakespeare used iambic pentameter, which requires a specific number of syllables per line, making it a form of fixed verse.

In the earliest instances of English poetry, fixed verse was nearly universal. Societies of the time constructed elaborate frameworks for fixed verse, including many different kinds of meters and technical conventions for poetry. Some of the most popular forms included the iambic and trochaic, where each line was composed of fixed patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, called feet, and a fixed line length.

Poetry is generally more structured in terms of the format in which it is written.
Poetry is generally more structured in terms of the format in which it is written.

The result of conventional fixed verse was poetry that read in specific cadence, and was largely predictable. Pairs of lines, or even additional sets of lines, in different verses rhymed with each other to further enhance the effect of fixed verse. One of the prime examples of this is the traditional Shakespearian fixed poetry and drama that still dominates some areas of secondary and undergraduate English literature education.

In the example of Shakespearian or general Elizabethan fixed poetry, the meter is most often iambic pentameter. This means that each line is composed of ten syllables in a specific pattern of an initial unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable. In other words, iambic pentameter is five groups of two. This pattern produces a recognizable cadence and inflection that most English language speakers are familiar with.

As poetry evolved, fixed verse was eventually replaced with a nearly opposite framework called free verse. Poets began to abandon the fixed meters of previous eras, associating the effects of poetry more with emotional intent than with technical mastery. In general, poetry began to take on many more informal conventions, from the dropping of capital letters to the arbitrary use of partial lines enveloped by white space on the page.

Though fixed verse is still widely studied, it is not much a part of contemporary literature. Even free verse and other more modern forms of poetry are less commonly produced than newer forms of communication like visual media, or book length manuscripts. It’s helpful for the modern student to understand the use of fixed verse in poetry throughout the ages, and how it has contributed to a range of world cultures and literary canons.

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Discussion Comments


@pastanaga - I can see your point, but I like to think of every aspect of the poem as contributing to it. If you look at certain poetry of Wordsworth, to carry on the example, he is actually quite cutting and cynical at the bottom of what he says. Would this be as effective if his poems weren't offering the contrast of such lovely lyricism?

Likewise, perhaps you're trying to get a meaning across that's fairly straightforward and brutal. If you tried to dress up the poem with rhyming and so forth, it wouldn't work.

Personally, I think that any meaning can be conveyed in a fixed verse poem, without compromise, as long as the fixed verse is allowed to convey its own meaning (and as long as the poet is very patient, as you're right, it can be extremely fiddly).


@KoiwiGal - I can appreciate that sort of fixed verse poetry as well, but I'm glad it's not the popular style at the moment. Perhaps not for people like Wordsworth, but for the ordinary person who just wants to express something in a poem, it's like forcing a square peg into a round hole. You have to fiddle with every single syllable in order to make them sit right and eventually even the best of us starts to use the second or third best word choice because it fits the verse structure rather than the meaning.

To me, the flow of the poetry is important, but not as important as the meaning of the poem. The poem is just a pretty bit of writing without a deeper meaning and to compromise that, to me, takes worth from the poem.


Even if you don't understand how metrical line (like iambic pentameter) works, you can still appreciate the beauty of words which have been written into it properly. I remember being fascinated by Wordsworth when I was at high school, not because of his words (that came later) but because of the way his poetry seemed to roll off the tongue when said aloud.

It took me years to go back and really grasp what he had been doing in order to make his poetry sit like that and it makes me appreciate it all the more.

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