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Heroic Couplet

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English Literature

Heroic couplets are a form of poem that has an essential place in English literary history. Throughout literary history, the meaning of a heroic couplet has changed. However, many examples of heroic couplets show that they are used to describe the heroic exploits of the protagonist of the poem, prose or play.

Heroic couplet meaning

Let us explore what the heroic couplet entails and its history.

Definition of heroic couplets

A heroic couplet is two lines of poetry or prose written in iambic pentameter. Lines of heroic couplets are similar in length and must rhyme.

History of heroic couplets

After Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales (1400), a text following a group of pilgrims, who travelled from London to Canterbury and exchanged stories on their journey, the heroic couplet became popular in English literature during the Elizabethan period. Poets used this form to translate texts written by Virgil and Homer. These translated epics featured heroes and their heroic deeds, after whom the couplet is named.

In the 17th century, the heroic couplet became popular because it was used commonly in Restoration theatre. In 1649, the British monarchy was abolished, and England was instead ruled by a Commonwealth (or Parliament) until the restoration of monarchy in 1660. During the reign of King Charles II, there was a resurgence in the popularity of theatre and literature. William Shakespeare used heroic couplets in both his plays and his poetry. The most famous use of the heroic couplet in this period was by John Dryden, Alexander Pope.

During the 20th and 21st centuries, the heroic couplet maintained its importance in English literature, with many writers and poets using the form to this day. Poets such as Seamus Heaney used heroic couplets both in his poetry and translations, and the form can also be found in the poetry of Claude McKay.

Examples of heroic couplets

We can find many examples of heroic couplets in both poetry and plays. One of the earliest examples of heroic couplets is the Greek poet Virgil’s ‘The Aeneid’ (19BC), translated into English in heroic couplets. We can find examples of the heroic couplet in the theatre in Shakespeare’s plays, including ‘Romeo and Juilet’ (1597) and ‘Macbeth’ (1606). Heroic couplets can also be found in poetry, including Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ (1400), John Dryden’s ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ (1681) and Alexander Pope’s ‘Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady’ (1717).

Features of heroic couplets

What are the characteristics of a heroic couplet?

Number of lines

A vital trait of the heroic couplet is that it consists of two lines. Couplets can occur within larger poems but will still be linked together by their rhyme. Look at the example below by Alexander Pope's ‘Rape of the Lock: Canto 1’ (1712), and try to count the number of heroic couplets you see.

What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,

What might contests rise from trivial things,

I sing-This verse to Caryl, Muse! Is due:

This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:

Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,

If she inspire, and he approve my lays.

There are three heroic couplets in this excerpt – lines 1 and 2, 3 and 4, and 5 and 6, but what other features show that these are heroic couplets?

Study tip! ‘Couplet’ includes the word ‘couple’ (meaning a pair), so think of two when you think of a couplet!

Meter

All heroic couplets must be written in iambic pentameter. It is a common meter used in poetry and plays and occurs in lines with five metrical feet (or iambs). An iamb will consist of one unstressed syllable, followed by one stressed syllable.

“What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,

What might contests rise from trivial things,”

In the example above, the stressed syllables are marked in bold - try and count how many are in each line.

Rhyme scheme

Heroic couplets are linked together by their rhyme scheme. They follow a masculine rhyme scheme, as only the words at the end of the sentences rhyme. The rhyme in a heroic couplet must be full, meaning that words must rhyme perfectly together.

What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,

What might contests rise from trivial things,

I sing-This verse to Caryl, Muse! Is due:

This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:

Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,

If she inspire, and he approve my lays.

In this extract, the stanza has a rhyme scheme of AABBCC, as there are three heroic couplets within the sestet. For example, rhyme A occurs in lines 1 and 2, where ‘springs’ rhymes with ‘things’ – can you spot where rhymes B and C occur?

Closed vs open couplets

What is the difference between closed and open couplets?

Closed heroic couplets

Many heroic couplets are also written to be closed couplets. Closed couplets occur when each couplet line is written as individual sentences.

Alexander Pope - ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ (1717)

Why rove my thoughts beyond this last retreat?

Why feels my heart its long-forgotten heat?

Each line ends with a question mark, meaning that the sentence has ended (closing it off).

Open heroic couplets

Heroic couplets can also be written as open couplets. The first line will flow into the second line in open couplets, and the sentence will end following this.

Yet, yet I love! - From Abelard it came,

And Eloisa yet must kiss the name.

The first line of this couplet by Pope ('Eloisa to Abelard') ends with a comma, leaving the sentence open to flow into the following line, where it finishes with a full stop.

Heroic couplets in poetry and plays

How are heroic couplets used in poetry and plays?

Heroic couplets in poetry

During the 17th century, it became popular to use heroic couplets in narrative poetry (poems that tell a story and use the voices of both a narrator and characters). Many narrative poems were long, so heroic couplets made the poetry easier to read.

Heroic couplets have only two lines linked together by a masculine rhyme, meaning they can deliver a short idea or thought (from a character, for example). The iambic pentameter can also help hold the reader’s attention, replicating everyday speech. The cadence of iambic pentameter follows the same structure as speech, so it can have a reader's attention as it is more easily accessible.

Fun fact: ‘The Rape of the Lock’ is 53 pages long – heroic couplets break the poem into more manageable and memorable chunks!

Heroic couples in plays

Heroic couplets were also used in plays during the late 16th and 17th centuries, notably in the works of William Shakespeare. He commonly placed heroic couplets at the end of scenes and acts to leave a strong impact on the audience. Look at the following extract from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (1597):

Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow

That I shall say good night till it be morrow

Shakespeare used the heroic couplet to finish the interaction between Romeo and Juliet shortly and concisely for a greater emphasis on sentiment.

Heroic Couplet - Key takeaways

  • Heroic couplets are a form of poetry that consists of two lines.

  • It uses iambic pentameter.

  • Heroic couplets have a masculine rhyme scheme (AA).

  • They can be open couplets (two lines form one sentence) or closed (two lines are separate sentences) couplets.

  • Heroic couplets were popularised in English literature through their use in poetry and plays in the late 16th to mid 17th century.

  • They were commonly used in longer, narrative poems.

Heroic Couplet

An example of a heroic couplet is the lines, 


‘What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,

What might contests rise from trivial things,’


This heroic couplet can be found in Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’. 

A heroic couplet is a form of poetry where two lines written in iambic pentameter will be linked together by a rhyme.  

The arrangement of syllables (iambic pentameter) in the heroic couplet means that it has the effect of being able to quickly grab a reader or listener’s attention. This coupled with its short length means that the heroic couplet can provide powerful statements in a concise manner.   

When heroic couplets were first created, they were used to describe stories about heroes, such as Aeneas in Virgil's ‘The Aeneid’. In the English literary tradition, the heroic couplet was used in epic tales and narrations, particularly by Dryden and Pope who often translated these epics to English (for example, Pope's translation of Homer).

These grand narratives featured heroes, after whom the couplet was named.

Heroic couplets were first used in ancient Greece, where they described stories about heroes. The heroic couplet was introduced to English literature when these stories were translated into English, after which the form became popular through Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’. In the 17th century, the form was used in poetry such as Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’ and plays, including William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. 

Final Heroic Couplet Quiz

Question

What is a heroic couplet?

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Answer

A heroic couplet is a form that consists of two rhyming lines of poetry, written in iambic pentameter. 

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Question

How many lines are in a heroic couplet?

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Answer

2

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Question

What Greek poet used heroic couplets in his work?


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Answer

The poet Virgil used heroic couplets in his work.

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Question

True or False - Geoffrey Chaucer used heroic couplets in ‘The Canterbury Tales’. 


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Answer

True! Chaucer did use heroic couplets in ‘The Canterbury Tales’. 

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Question

Can heroic couplets be used in plays? 

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Answer

Yes! Heroic couplets can be used in plays.

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Question

Can the lines of a couplet be found separately in the poem?


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Answer

No! Both lines of a heroic couplet have to be placed together.

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Question

What meter is used in a heroic couplet? 


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Answer

Iambic pentameter

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Question

How many metrical feet are in a line of iambic pentameter? 


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Answer

5

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What two types of syllables are in a metrical foot?


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Answer

Stressed

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True or False - Heroic couplets follow an ABBA-CDDC rhyme scheme?


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Answer

False! Heroic couplets do not follow an ABBA-CDDC rhyme scheme.

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Question

Is the rhyme scheme in a heroic couplet masculine or feminine? 


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Answer

Masculine

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Question

What is a masculine rhyme? 


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Answer

A masculine rhyme is when the words at the end of the lines rhyme with each other.

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True or False - All heroic couplets are closed couplets.


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Answer

False! Heroic couplets can be both closed or open couplets.

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Question

What is a closed couplet?


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Answer

A closed couplet occurs when both lines of the couplet are individual, separate sentences.

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What is an open couplet?


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Answer

An open couplet occurs when the first line of the couplet flows into the second line as one continuous sentence.

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Question

What type of poetry can heroic couplets be commonly found in?


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Answer

Heroic couplets can commonly be found in narrative poetry. 

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Question

What is narrative poetry?


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Answer

Narrative poetry is when the poem tells a story that includes the voices of a narrator and different characters. 

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Question

Where did Shakespeare tend to place heroic couplets in his plays?


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Answer

End

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