Verse novel

A verse novel is a type of narrative poetry in which a novel-length narrative is told through the medium of poetry rather than prose. Either simple or complex stanzaic verse-forms may be used, but there will usually be a large cast, multiple voices, dialogue, narration, description, and action in a novelistic manner.



Verse narratives are as old as the epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Odyssey, but the verse novel is a distinct modern form. Although the narrative structure is similar to that of a novella, the organisation of the story is usually in a series of short sections, often with changing perspectives. Verse novels are often told with multiple narrators, potentially providing readers with a cinematic view into the inner workings of the characters' minds. Some verse novels, following Byron's mock-heroic Don Juan (1818–24) employ an informal, colloquial register. Eugene Onegin (1831) by Alexander Pushkin is a classical example, and with Pan Tadeusz (1834) by Adam Mickiewicz is often taken as the seminal example of the modern genre.[1]

The major nineteenth-century verse novels that ground the form in Anglophone letters include The Bothie of Toper-na-fuisich (1848) and Amours de Voyage (1858) by Arthur Hugh Clough, Aurora Leigh (1857) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lucile (1860) by 'Owen Meredith' (Robert Bulwer-Lytton), and The Ring and the Book (1868-9) by Robert Browning. The form appears to have declined with Modernism, but has since the 1960s-70s undergone a remarkable revival. Of particular note, Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate (1986) was a surprise bestseller, and Derek Walcott's Omeros (1990) a more predictable success.[2] The form has been particularly popular in the Caribbean, with work since 1980 by Walcott, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, David Dabydeen, Kwame Dawes, Ralph Thompson, George Elliott Clarke and Fred D'Aguiar, and in Australia and New Zealand, with work since 1990 by Les Murray, John Tranter, Dorothy Porter, Chris Orsman, David Foster, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, and Robert Sullivan.[3]

The parallel history of the verse autobiography, from strong Victorian foundation with Wordsworth's The Prelude (1805, 1850), to decline with Modernism and later twentieth-century revival with John Betjeman's Summoned by Bells (1960), Walcott's Another Life (1973), and James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), is also striking. The forms are distinct, but many verse novels plainly deploy autobiographical elements, and the recent Commonwealth examples almost all offer detailed representation of the (problems besetting) post-imperial and post-colonial identity, and so are inevitably strongly personal works.

There is also a distinct recent cluster of verse novels for younger readers, most notably Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, which won a Newbery Medal in 1998. Hesse followed it with Witness (2001). Since then, many new titles have cropped up, with authors Sonya Sones, Ellen Hopkins, Steven Herrick, Margaret Wild, Nikki Grimes, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Ann Warren Turner, Lorie Ann Grover, Brenda Seabrooke, Paul B. Janeczko, and Mel Glenn all publishing multiple titles.


Long classical verse narratives were in stichic forms, prescribing a metre but not specifying any interlineal relations. This tradition is represented in English letters by the use of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), as by both Brownings and many later poets. But since Petrarch and Dante complex stanza-forms have also been used for verse narratives, including terza rima (aba bcb cdc etc.) and ottava rima (abababcc), and modern poets have experimented widely with adaptations and combinations of stanza-forms.

The stanza most specifically associated with the verse novel is the Onegin stanza, invented by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin. It is an adapted form of the Shakespearean sonnet, retaining the three quatrains plus couplet structure but reducing the metre to iambic tetrameter and specifying a distinct rhyme-scheme: the first quatrain is cross-rhymed (abab), the second couplet-rhymed (ccdd), and the third arch-rhymed (or chiasmic, effe), so that the whole is ababccddeffegg.[4] Additionally, Pushkin required that the first rhyme in each couplet (the a, c, and e rhymes) be unstressed (or 'feminine'), and all others stressed (or 'masculine'): not all those using the Onegin stanza have followed the prescription, but Vikram Seth notably did so, and the cadence of the unstressed rhymes is an important factor in his manipulations of tone.

Recent examples

  • The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, Les Murray (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1980)
  • The Illusionists, John Fuller (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980)
  • Midquest: A Poem, Fred Chappell (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981)
  • The Golden Gate, Vikram Seth (London: Faber & Faber, 1986)
  • Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons, Marilyn Hacker (New York: Norton, 1986)
  • Omeros, Derek Walcott (London: Faber & Faber, 1990)
  • Whylah Falls, George Elliott Clarke (Vancouver: Polestar, 1990; rev. ed. 2000)
  • Akhenaten, Dorothy Porter (St Lucia, QLD: University of Queensland Press, 1992)
  • The Floor of Heaven, John Tranter (Sydney: Collins Angus & Robertson, 1992)
  • The Monkey's Mask: An Erotic Murder Mystery, Dorothy Porter (Sydney: Hyland House Publishing, 1994)
  • History: The Home Movie, Craig Raine (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994)
  • Turner, David Dabydeen (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994)
  • Prophets, Kwame Dawes (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1995)
  • Jacko Jacobus, Kwame Dawes (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1996)
  • South: An Antarctic Journey, Chris Orsman (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1996)
  • Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson (New York: Knopf, 1998)
  • Fred D'Aguiar (London: Chatto & Windus, 1998)
  • Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse, Les Murray (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999)
  • Jack, the Lady Killer, H. R. F. Keating (Hexham: Flambard, 1999)
  • What a Piece of Work, Dorothy Porter (Sydney: Picador, 1999)
  • Fred D'Aguiar (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000)
  • Tiepolo's Hound, Derek Walcott (London: Faber & Faber, 2000)
  • Maori Battalion: A Poetic Sequence, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell (Wellington: Wai-te-ata Press, 2001)
  • The Beauty of the Husband, Anne Carson (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001)
  • Ancestors, Edward Kamau Brathwaite (New York: New Directions Press, 2001)
  • Darlington's Fall, Brad Leithauser (New York: Knopf, 2002)
  • Wild Surmise, Dorothy Porter (Sydney: Picador, 2002)
  • Captain Cook in the Underworld, Robert Sullivan (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002)
  • The Prodigal (verse novel), Derek Walcott (London: Faber & Faber, 2004)
  • This Barren Land My Bed of Roses (verse novel), Ayana Noble (University of Queensland Press, 2006)
  • The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, Margarita Engle (Juvenile/Children's) (New York: Henry Holt, 2006)
  • Nine Hours North, Tim Sinclair (Melbourne: Penguin, 2006)
  • Muscle, Matthew Schreuder (Sydney: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2007)
  • El Dorado, Dorothy Porter (Sydney: Picador, 2007)
  • Zorgamazoo, Robert Paul Weston (New York: Penguin/Razorbill, 2008)
  • I & I, George Elliott Clarke (Fredericton, New Brunswick: Goose Lane Editions, 2009)
  • View from Mount Diablo, Ralph Thompson (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2003; rev. & annotated ed., 2009)

Novels in Verse for Teens

See also


  1. ^ For discussion of the basic categorical issues see The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), s.v. 'Narrative Poetry'.
  2. ^ The upturn is noted in J. A. Cuddon, ed., A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (4th ed., rev. C. E. Preston, Oxford & malden, MA: Blackwells, 1998; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999), s.v. 'verse-novel'.
  3. ^ These geographical clusters are noted and discussed in the editorial introduction to Ralph Thompson, View from Mount Diablo, An Annotated Edition (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, & Tirril: Humanities-Ebooks, 2009).
  4. ^ For detailed discussion of the Onegin stanza see the introduction in Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse by Aleksandr Pushkin. Translated from the Russian, with a Commentary by Vladimir Nabokov (rev. ed., in 4 vols, London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1975), especially i.10 ff..

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