Couplet: Characteristics, Overview

Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

In this lesson, we will explore the different uses of the couplet in rhymed poetry and free verse. We will analyze examples from Geoffrey Chaucer, Robin Robertson, and William Shakespeare.

Characteristics

Poems are usually easy to spot. Unlike a story or an essay, the shape of a poem on the page is essential to reading. What gives poetry its unique shape is the line. The feel of a poem depends on how these lines relate to each other. The most basic relationship between lines is a couplet. A couplet is a pair of lines that work together in some way. For this lesson, let's look at three ways that couplets work.

Heroic Couplets

Traditionally, the lines in a couplet rhyme. One of the oldest examples of a rhymed couplet is the heroic couplet, which is used in longer narrative poems. Medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales almost entirely in heroic couplets. Here's a brief example (in Modern English) from the prologue:

A knight there was, and he a worthy man,
Who, from the moment that he first began
To ride about the world, loved chivalry,
Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his liege-lord's war,
And therein had he ridden (none more far)
As well in Christendom as heathenesse,
And honoured everywhere for worthiness.

As you can see, each heroic couplet introduces a new rhyme ('man'/'began,' 'chivalry'/'courtesy,' 'war'/'far,' 'heathenesse'/'worthiness'), but the rhymed couplets work together as part of a larger pattern. Because it is based on rhyme, this kind of pattern is called a rhyme scheme.

Couplets as Stanzas

Sometimes, couplets are used as two-line stanzas. A stanza is a group of lines that make up a piece, or 'unit,' of a poem. Although two-line stanzas often rhyme, it is also possible to use couplets as stanzas in free verse. The following stanzas from Robin Robertson's poem 'The Fishermen's Farewell' are a great example of how couplets work in free verse:

Their long stares mark them apart; eyes gone
to sea-colors: gray, foam-flecked

and black in the undertow, blue
as the blue banners of the mackerel, whipping west.

On land, they are smoke-walkers, where each stone
is a standing stone, every circle a stone circle.

See how Robertson's couplets are noticeably different from Chaucer's heroic couplets? Since each couplet is its own stanza, we don't have to look for rhymes to figure out which lines go together. Instead, the couplets give us a visual cue for how to navigate the poem: two lines at a time.

Couplets in Other Forms: The Shakespearean Sonnet

Still, couplets aren't just a way to create a steady rhyme scheme or divide a poem into stanzas. Couplets also play a key role in other, more varied poetic forms. For instance, a Shakespearean sonnet is made up of three 4-line stanzas and one couplet. Let's take a look at Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 116':

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:

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