The Heroic Couplet

What is the Heroic Couplet?
A heroic couplet is a group of two lines rhyming at the end, both the lines being iambic pentameters. Now, what is an iambic pentameter? A pentameter is a line consisting of five “feet”; and if every one of these five feet is an “iamb” or “iambic foot,” the line is an iambic pantameter. An iambic foot consists of two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second, stressed. For instance, the word divide makes an iambic foot in verse for its first syllable (di) is unstressed and the second (vide) is stressed. In the same way the words given below make one iambic foot each:

Belie, delay, remain, between, and delight.
Now let us give an example of an iambic pentameter. This line occurs in Pope’s Epistle to a Lady:
But what are these to great Atossa ‘s mind?
This line can be “scanned” (that is, analysed metrically) as follows:
But what / are these / to great /Ato / ssa ‘s mind
Each vertical line divides one foot (here, one iambic foot) from the other, each cross indicates an unstressed syllable, and each horizontal line, a stressed syllable. It is by reading the line aloud that we can judge which syllable is to be stressed and which not. The iambic pentameter given above is the first ofthetwo lines making up a heroic couplet. Let us now give the second line.
Scarce once herself, by turns all Womankind! It may be scanned as follows:
Scarce once   herself buy turns- all mankind
Both the lines together constitute a heroic couple, as either of them is an iambic pentameter, and they rhyme at the end.
But what are these to great Atossa’s mind?
Scarce once herself, by turns all Womankind!
Now this is a normal heroic couplet. But the heroic couplet does admit of occasional variations. All good wielders of thetiefoic couplet use these variations to counteract the possibility of monotony caused by its peculiar singsong. We will discuss these variations a little later, but let us here give a few more characteristics of a normal or regular heroic couplet. They are as follows:
(i)         The heroic couplet makes a self-contained unit, just as a stanza. It is, in fact, a stanza in its own right. Sometimes, however, the sense is allowed to overflow from one couplet to the next.
(ii)        Tn each of the two lines of a heroic couplet there are generally two pauses (or stops)—one at the end (end-stop) and the other somewhere in the middle (middle-stop or caesura), usually after the fourth of sixth syllable, and very often indicated by a punctuation mark such as a comma or a semicolon. In the first line of the heroic couplet quoted above, the caesura comes after the word these (fourth syllable) and in the second, afterjhe syllable self (again, the fourth syllable).
(iii)       The rhyme is limited to the ending syllables (mind and kind) both of which are accented.
Some Variations:
(1)        A heroic couplet may not always form a self-contained unit. The sense may be allowed to flow from one couplet to the next. In other words, the couplet may not be a closed one having a strong pause at the end. This overflowing of the sense from one couplet to the next is called enjambement. Almost all the wielders of the heroic couplet,including Dryden and Pope, allowed themselves consideable liberty for enjambement. Consider, for instance, how Keats uses the couplets at the beginning of Endymion:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness, but still keep
A bower quiet for us, and sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
In this case the sentence structure is independent of the metre. The lines are not end-stopped.
(2)                 Sometimes the two lines (or one of the two lines) of a heroic couplet may not be exact pentameters. Instead of some iambic feet the poet may use some other kind of feet. And sometimes even the number of syllables in each line may not be ten. Thus in Keats’s passage quoted above, the first two lines consist of eleven syllables each.
(3)                 Sometimes the caesura may not come at all. The absence of the caesura makes for speed.
(4)                 Sometimes the rhyme may not be limited to the ending syllables; it may extend to the two ending syllables of each line. Such a rhyme is called a double rhyme or feminine rhyme for example:
Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,
Besides ten thousand freaks that dies in thinking.
–from Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel
(5)        Sometimes (but seldom) the heroic couplet may give place to a triplet, that is, a set of three iambic pentameters all rhyming together or two iambic pentameters followed by a rhyming alexandrine (an iambic hexameter). Dryden was particularly devoted to the triplet-for which Pope took him to task.
Its Good Qualities and Defects:
Like all pther verse measure the heroic couplet has its good qualities as also’ efects. By its very nature the heroic couplet makes the fittest medium for certain kinds of poetry, but not for others. Its rapidity, balance, and epigrammatic flavour render it suitable particularly for satiric and narrative poetry, and the very same qualities make it unsuitable for elegiac, tender, passionate, or lyrical verse. But we cannot be too categorical in our statement, as in the hands of a master like Pope the heroic couplet can become a pliant medium for the expression of every mood and purpose. Pope’s Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, a wonderful elegy, is in heroic couplets. So is his passionate poem Eloisa to AbelardR. P. C. Mutter and M. Kinkead-Weekes observe in the Preface to the Selected Poems and Letters of Alexander Pope : “From Dryden’s extremely varied achievement in the heroic couplet Pope learnt how it could be made flowing and easy, or packed and concise, how it could spit like a firecracker or soar with eloquence, how it could be wittily antithetical or tenderly elegiac. The couplet may look monotonous as we see it on the page, but when we read it with attention as the poet’s art directs us, it is a highly flexible style. Pope used it for nearly all his poetry-for all his greatest-because he could do anything with it that he wanted”. The following may be considered the ‘good qualities” of the heroic couplet
(i)         As we have said, the heroic couplet makes for speed and brevity of expression. There is nothing languid or slumbrous about it as is the case with such verse-forms as the Spenserian stanza.
(ii)        The heroic couplet admits of balance and antithesis which lend rhetorical colour to verse and render it more forceful for the purpose of argument. Dryden was the greatest arguer in verse.
(iii)       Its brevity and balance give the heroic couplet an epigrammatic flavour. Pope is among all the English poets the most quotab’0 for he abounds in epigrams (short, witty, proverb-like sayings) which are evidently not possible with long stanzaic forms.
(iv)       All the qualities enumerated above make the heroic couplet the most eligible medium of satiric poetry. It is not an accident that the golden age of English satire was also the golden age of the heroic couplet. For one thing, the satirist can deliver in heroic couplets his appraisal of the satiric target in the form of short and pithy points which look like proverbs or axioms impossible to be controverted. Many of Dryden’s heroic couplets, according to George Saintsbury, have the sound of an actual slap in the face.
(v)        The use of the heroic couplet demands a peculiar discipline from the poet. The conformity of the sentence structure to the metre demands that he should think not in long sentences but couplets. Thus he cannot afford to be slack or flaccid.
Here are some of the “defects” of the heroic couplet;
(i)         The greatest “defect” of the heroic couplet is the possibility of its growing monotonous. In the hands of not so good a poet it runs the very serious danger of degenerating into mere singsong. However, a poet IjJsgLDryden or Pope knows how to vary his metre, and thus avoid monotony. This charge against the heroic couplet can, in fact, be adduced against any other measure too. Thus many critics have disapproved of the cloying monotony of such a complex form as the Spenserian stanza, and at least F. R. Leavis has criticised what he calls the ritualistic colour of Milton’s blank verse.
(ii)        Another “defect” is the incapability of the heroic couplet to serve as a fit measure for poetry other than satiric and narrative-specially, tender or passionate poetry. But here again the defect is not so much in the measure as in the poet. We have already cited the instance of Pope who could do anything with the heroic couplet. However, it has to be admitted that very few tender, elegiac, or passionate poems have been written in heroic couplets. Few lyricists have used this form.
(iii)       The rhetorical colour of the heroic couplet detracts from the sincerity of sentiment sought to be expressed by the poet. The poet using heroic couplets sounds like a public speaker and not a person giving sincere expression to sincere feelings. You can argue through heroic couplets, but you cannot move anybody with them.
The History of the Heroic Couplet and Some Poems Written in
The heroic couplet was first used by Chaucer who adopted it perhaps from old French verse. Some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as also the Prologue are in couplets. At the end of the sixteenth century, Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare made various uses of the heroic couplet. Spenser’s Mother Hubbard’s Tale (1597) is a satiric narrative in heroic couplets. In Michael Drayton’s England’s Heroical Epistles, again, we find the use of the couplet. The last two lines of every sonnet by Shakespeare constitute a heroic couplet. Some of these couplets look curiously like the couplets of Dryden and Pope. For instance, consider the following one;
For we. which now behold these present days,
Have eves to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.
Edward Fairfax in his translation -of Tasso’s Godfrey of Bulloigne! (1600) used the same measure, and was riarned by Dryden himself as one of the earliest reformers of English prosody. The group of Elizabethan satirists including Donne, Lodge, Hall and Marston also had recourse to the couplet, but their couplets are uneven and rugged and flagrantly disdainful of its discipline. Sir John Beaumont wrote his Bosworth Field in couplets which are instinct with sweetness and have an even flow. Sir George Sandys used the heroic couplet in his Metamorphoses (1621—26); but his couplets were neither pithy nor uniform. Incidentally, Sandys was praised by Dryden as “the best versifier of the former age.” Milton used heroic couplets for four of his Cambridge poems, but in their freedom, they look more like rhymed blank verse. Edmund Waller was recognised by both Dryden and Pope as their master. Denham wrote his, Cooper’s Hill in couplets which resemble Waller’s. Cleveland’s political poems also used the heroic couplet. His couplets are not smooth, but they have the important quality of directness.
With Dryden and Pope we come to the real masters of the heroic couplet. They made the couplet regular and correct and at the same time a very flexible and polished medium of poetic expression. Dryden wrote no fewer than thirty thousand couplets. He used the couplet not only for his narrative and satiric poems like Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal, Mac Flecknoe, and The Hind and the Panther, but also for his “heroic tragedies” like Aureng-Zebe and The Conquest of Granada. Pope perfected the couplet. All his important poems, like The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, Essay oq Man, and Essay on Criticism, are in couplets. Pope’s contemporaries like Addison, Prior, Gay, Swift, and Ambrose Philips also employed the heroic couplet for their numerous works. After them the most important and the “weightiest” wielder of the heroic couplet is Dr. Johnson whose Vanity of Human Wishes is his greatest work. The vogue of the couplet declined after him as romanticism spread in the air and poets started gradually turning away from the conventions of the neo-classical school of Dryden and Pope. However, off and on, there did come poems in heroic couplets. Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) is the most notable example. Byron was indeed the most “classical” of all romantic poets.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s