Heroic Couplet Overview & Examples

Laura Lohman, Richard Davis
  • Author
    Laura Lohman

    Laura Lohman has taught university arts and humanities courses for over 10 years. She has a PhD in the history of music (University of Pennsylvania), MS in Human Resources and Organization Development (the University of Louisville), and BM in music performance (Indiana University). She holds senior human resources, affirmative action, and project management certifications.

  • Instructor
    Richard Davis

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

Explore heroic couplets. Learn the definition of a heroic couplet and understand its history. Discover the importance of heroic couplets with examples. Updated: 11/15/2021

Heroic Couplet Definition

A heroic couplet is a rhyming couplet, or two lines of poetry, written in iambic pentameter. That poetic meter, iambic pentameter, is what distinguishes a heroic couplet from a regular couplet. Each line in iambic pentameter consists of 5 iambs and totals 10 syllables. Each iamb has two syllables: one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Heroic couplets also feature end rhyme, which occurs when the last word (or group of words) in the first line of the couplet rhymes with the last word (or group of words) in the other line. These couplets are called 'heroic' because of their frequent use in epic poetry about the legendary deeds of heroes.

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.

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Heroic Couplet History

Heroic couplets are rooted in medieval epic poetry and became widely used in 17th- and 18th-century English poetry. In the medieval period, the 14th-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to make extensive use of heroic couplets. They appear, for example, in his Canterbury Tales. Renaissance poets who used heroic couplets include Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Edmund Spenser. An example is Spenser's satiric narrative Mother Hubbard's Tale (1597). Shakespeare's sonnets conclude with a heroic couplet in the final two lines. In sonnets, the final heroic couplet often delivers a witty or surprising conclusion. Heroic couplets were also used in dramatic works in the mid-17th century.

Leading poets who wrote in and perfected the use of heroic couplets included John Dryden and Alexander Pope in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Dryden was skilled as a satirist, and he used heroic couplets to great effect in his satirical poem Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and in Astraea Redux (1660), his poem that celebrated Charles Stuart's restoration. Dryden also used heroic couplets in his translations of ancient epics, such as his translation of Virgil's The Aeneid. Pope's works written in heroic couplets include The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, Essay on Man, and Essay on Criticism.

Heroic Couplet Examples

An early poem illustrating the use of heroic couplets is Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was known for his ability to create fluid heroic couplets in which the iambic pentameter was not interrupted by internal punctuation. As seen in this excerpt from the General Prologue, each pair of successive lines is linked through end rhyme (man and bigan, chivalrie and curtesie):

Middle English Modern English Translation
A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man, A knight there was, and he a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan Who, from the moment that he first began
To riden out, he loved chivalryie, To ride about the world, loved chivalry,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie. Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy.


Portrait of John Dryden (1693).

Portrait of John Dryden

One of the masters of the heroic couplet was John Dryden (1631-1700). Dryden was an English poet and playwright who was appointed England's first Poet Laureate in 1668. He used heroic couplets both in his original poetry and in his translations, including his translation of Virgil's The Aeneid. Virgil's ancient epic poem recounts the legendary tale of the Trojan Aeneas, who escaped the fall of Troy and traveled to the future site of Rome. In this excerpt from Dryden's translation, bold stressed syllables highlight how the unstressed and stressed syllables of each of the 5 iambs alternate:

''Soon had their hosts in bloody battle join'd;

But westward to the sea the sun declin'd.

Intrench'd before the town both armies lie,

While Night with sable wings involves the sky.''


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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Video Transcript

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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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of a heroic couplet?

Heroic couplets provide a way to organize long epic poems by using a predictable poetic meter and predictable pattern of rhyming pairs of lines. When used at the ends of sonnets, heroic couplets often provide a witty or surprising conclusion to the poem.

What is a heroic couplet in literature?

A heroic couplet is a rhyming couplet, or two lines of poetry, in iambic pentameter. Heroic couplets are used in epics, mock epics, sonnets, and plays.

Why is it called a heroic couplet?

This type of couplet is called 'heroic' because it is frequently used in epic poetry. Heroic couplets were used in English translations of ancient epic poems about ancient Greek and Roman heroes as well as in newly written English poetry.

What is an example of a couplet?

These two lines from John Dryden's translation of Virgil's The Aeneid illustrates the structure of a heroic couplet:

''Intrench'd before the town both armies lie,

While Night with sable wings involves the sky.''

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