Rhyming Couplets: Definition, Examples & Effect

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  • 0:01 Defining Rhyming Couplets
  • 1:15 Examples of Rhyming Couplets
  • 4:30 Effects of of Rhyming Couplets
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
Rhyming couplets are a defining dynamic duo throughout the canon of literary poetry. In this lesson, explore more through a full definition, examples and a discussion of their effect.

Defining Rhyming Couplets

You may have encountered Shakespeare's Weird Sisters and these lines from the play Macbeth:

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

These famous lines are an epic example of a rhyming couplet. As you may have surmised from the name, rhyming couplets are two lines that rhyme, but they also often have the same meter, or rhythmic structure in a verse or line. Couplets that do not have the same meter are known as uneven couplets because the two lines differ in length, as well as often beat or syllable count.

Rhyming couplets have a rich and textured history in the poetic canon; Chaucer composed the entirety of The Canterbury Tales in couplets. Chaucer is in good company, as such greats as Marlowe, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Milton, Robert Browning, Keats, Frost and many more were also prolific creators of these lines. The form of the couplet itself is frequently what entices writers because its brevity, succinctness and natural symmetry offer versatile opportunity to create a startling effect, whether it's for satire or dramatic pause.

Examples of Rhyming Couplets

In order to better conceptualize the effect of a rhyming couplet, let's look at some examples that consider the couplet in the context of either an excerpt from a poem or an entire poem, as it is extremely rare for a poet to create a couplet in isolation.

'L'Allegro'

In this first example, the rhyming couplets are run together, but we can distinguish them as couplets from what would be a longer stanza because of their end rhymes:

While the plowman near at hand,
Whistles o'er the furrowed land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale,
Under the hawthorn in the dale.

- John Milton, 'L'Allegro'

The rhyme scheme for this stanza would be a, a, b, b, c, c. With this effect of the stacked rhyming couplets, the reader is able to visualize all of the separate busyness that goes on in this pastoral setting. The first and third couplets focus on only one character, the plowman and the shepherd, respectively, and the second couplet is actually an interesting pacing agent. We see a snapshot of both the milkmaid and the mower in only the two lines, and this contributes to the 'business' we feel.

Shakespearean Sonnet

A common hangout for the rhyming couplet is the conclusion of a sonnet. Remarkably different from the Macbeth excerpt above, let's take a look at Shakespeare's '50th Sonnet:'

How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel's end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
'Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!'
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider lov'd not speed being made from thee.
The bloody spur cannot provoke him on,
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;
For that same groan doth put this in my mind,
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.

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