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.
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.
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.