Confession time: My current ‘bathroom book’ is a 1946 OUP version of ‘The Poems of John Milton’. In it I read an explanation of why ‘Paradise Lost’ was not rhymed poetry. (The editorial ‘The Verse’ was added in 1668 to the beginning of unsold copies of the first edition of ‘Paradise Lost’.) Here’s a short excerpt.
“THE measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them.”
This criticism of rhyme in poetry surprised me. At school (certainly Primary school, but I suspect later too) we were taught that poems rhyme. I remember spending long periods sucking on my pencil trying to find a word that rhymed with ‘jungle’ or ‘market’… Years later, when I returned to writing poems, I naturally began with rhymed poems because they seemed more like ‘real’ poems. But some subjects just didn’t want to be constrained. Some of my friends, those who don’t read poetry, would say that if it doesn’t rhyme then it is just an essay chopped into pieces, but that is most definitely not true; a verse can be beautiful and full of poetry, without a single rhyme. For example, here’s a passage from Robert Frost’s “Birches” which I defy anyone to call unpoetic!