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.To get to the next example, let’s fast-forward through about four centuries. In 1712, Alexander Pope published the first version of The Rape of the Lock, one the most famous mock epics in the English language. A mock epic parodies the tone of epic poems by using dramatic, ‘heroic’ language to describe situations that aren’t all that ‘epic.
‘ The following lines describe a young baron (referred to as the ‘Peer’) cutting a small piece of hair off a young woman’s head. Appropriately enough, Pope uses the heroic couplet to enhance the humor of his mock epic. Read the following aloud:The Peer now spreads the glitt‘ring Forfex wide, (a)T’inclose the Lock; now joins it, to divide. (a)Ev’nthen, before the fatal Engine clos’d, (b)A wretched Sylph too fondly interpos’d; (b)Fate urg’d the Sheers, and cut the Sylph in twain, (c)(But Airy Substance soon unites again) (c)The meeting Points that sacred Hair dissever (d)From the fair Head, for ever and for ever! (d)That sure is a roundabout way of saying, ‘He cut off a piece of her hair,’ isn’t it? Once again, let’s not worry about the meaning and focus on the sound of the lines.
Pope’s end rhymes are just as tight as Chaucer’s (if not more so), and he also uses metrical substitution effectively (particularly in the final line). Yet Pope’s use of the heroic couplet has a very different tone than Chaucer’s. In a way, Pope is doing to the heroic couplet what ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic does to popular songs…the music is the same, but the effect is completely different!
Let’s quickly go over what we’ve learned. A heroic couplet is a rhyming couplet, or pair of lines with end rhymes in iambic pentameter, meaning there are five iambic ‘feet’ on each line. The heroic couplet traditionally appears in long, narrative poems called epics, but it can also be used in mock epics that parody the ‘heroic’ tone of epic poetry. Either way, poets often add flair to the rhythms of the heroic couplet with metrical substitution, or using one kind of metrical foot instead of another.
When you are done, you should be able to:
- Recite the characteristics of a heroic couplet
- Describe iambic pentameter
- Examine an epic and mock epic that serve as examples of heroic couplets
- Explain how metrical substitution is used