Heroic Couplet: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is a Heroic Couplet?
  • 1:53 Examples
  • 5:02 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

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

Did you know that a couplet can be heroic? Come and investigate the formal tradition of the heroic couplet, from its roots in medieval English poetry to the mock epics of the eighteenth century.

What Is a Heroic Couplet?

One of the first things people notice about traditional English poetry is that it rhymes. To be more specific, we tend to notice the end rhymes in a poem. Generally, end rhymes occur when the last word of one line rhymes with the last word of another line. This can also happen with groups of words. Take, for instance, the last two lines in Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss:

Fox in socks, our game is done, sir.
Thank you for a lot of fun, sir.

Hear how the last two words ('done, sir' and 'fun, sir') in both lines rhyme? The more complicated the end rhymes, the more humorous a poem sounds. What's more, these two lines form a rhyming couplet, which means the end rhymes are located as close to each other as possible.

So, now that we're on the subject of couplets, you might be wondering what makes a couplet 'heroic.' Judging by the name, you might guess that it's a couplet about a hero. Well, that is a large part of the heroic couplet's history, but that doesn't capture the whole definition. A heroic couplet is a rhyming couplet that uses a meter called iambic pentameter.

In order to clarify what the term 'iambic pentameter' means, let's discuss what each word of the term refers to. 'Iambic' means that the meter is divided into groups of strong and weak syllables (or metrical feet) called iambs. An iamb is a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable. Another way to say this is that an iamb is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. The word 'pentameter' means that there are five iambs in each line.

Taken together, iambic pentameter means that there are five iambs, each two syllables long, in each line, or a total of ten syllables in each line.

Examples of Heroic Couplets

Now that we know what a heroic couplet is, let's look at two examples from the heroic couplet's past.

The first example is from The Legend of Good Women, written in the mid-thirteenth century by medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. This epic (or long, narrative poem) about virtuous women from history and mythology is considered the 'debut' of heroic couplets in English literature. The lines are in the original Middle English, so don't worry about grasping the meaning of every word. Rather, let's pay close attention to the sound of the lines.

Letters have been added to indicate the rhyme scheme, and the strong syllables have been put in italics. Read the following aloud:

The herd of hertes founden is anoon, (a)
With 'hey! go bet! prik thou! lat goon, lat goon! (a)
Why nil the leoun comen of the bere, (b)
That I mighte ones mete him with this spere?' (b)
Thus seyn thise yonge folk, and up they kille (c)
These hertes wilde, and han hem at hir wille. (c)

The end rhymes of each heroic couplet work together beautifully ('anoon' and 'lat goon,' 'bere' and 'spere,' and 'kille' and 'wille'), but the meter isn't always perfect.

The phrases 'prik thou' in the second line and 'with this spere' in the fourth line don't follow the rules of iambic pentameter. This kind of variation in a poem's meter is known as metrical substitution, which means switching one kind of metrical foot with another.

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