Heroic couplet

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A heroic couplet is a traditional form for English poetry, commonly used in epic and narrative poetry, and consisting of a rhyming pair of lines in iambic pentameter. Use of the heroic couplet was pioneered by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Legend of Good Women and the Canterbury Tales , [1] and generally considered to have been perfected by John Dryden and Alexander Pope in the Restoration Age and early 18th century respectively.



A frequently-cited example illustrating the use of heroic couplets is this passage from Cooper's Hill by John Denham, part of his description of the Thames:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep yet clear, though gentle yet not dull;
Strong without rage, without o'erflowing full.


The term "heroic couplet" is sometimes reserved for couplets that are largely closed and self-contained, as opposed to the enjambed couplets of poets like John Donne. The heroic couplet is often identified with the English Baroque works of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, who used the form for their translations of the epics of Virgil and Homer, respectively. Major poems in the closed couplet, apart from the works of Dryden and Pope, are Samuel Johnson's The Vanity of Human Wishes , Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village , and John Keats's Lamia . The form was immensely popular in the 18th century. The looser type of couplet, with occasional enjambment, was one of the standard verse forms in medieval narrative poetry, largely because of the influence of the Canterbury Tales.


English heroic couplets, especially in Dryden and his followers, are sometimes varied by the use of the occasional alexandrine, or hexameter line, and triplet. Often these two variations are used together to heighten a climax. The breaking of the regular pattern of rhyming pentameter pairs brings about a sense of poetic closure. Here are two examples from Book IV of Dryden's translation of the Aeneid .


Her lofty courser, in the court below,
Who his majestic rider seems to know,
Proud of his purple trappings, paws the ground,
And champs the golden bit, and spreads the foam around.

(ll. 190–193)

Alexandrine and Triplet

My Tyrians, at their injur’d queen’s command,
Had toss’d their fires amid the Trojan band;
At once extinguish’d all the faithless name;
And I myself, in vengeance of my shame,
Had fall’n upon the pile, to mend the fun’ral flame.

(ll. 867–871)

Modern use

Twentieth-century authors have occasionally made use of the heroic couplet, often as an allusion to the works of poets of previous centuries. An example of this is Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire , the second section of which is a 999-line, 4-canto poem largely written in loose heroic couplets with frequent enjambment. [2] Here is an example from the first canto:

And then black night. That blackness was sublime.
I felt distributed through space and time:
One foot upon a mountaintop. One hand
Under the pebbles of a panting strand,
One ear in Italy, one eye in Spain,
In caves, my blood, and in the stars, my brain.

(Canto One. 147–153)

The use of heroic couplets in translations of Greco-Roman epics has also inspired translations of non-Western works into English. In 2021, Vietnamese translator Nguyen Binh published a translation of the Vietnamese epic poem Tale of Kiều , in which the lục bát couplets of the original were rendered into heroic couplets. [3] Binh named John Dryden and Alexander Pope as major influences on their work, which also mimicked the spelling of Dryden and Pope's translations to evoke the medieval air of the Vietnamese original. [4] An example of the heroic couplet translation can be found below:

One mounted, one released the other’s coat,
The autumn maples dyed with roads remote.
Red miles cast dust upon the faring steed;
He disappear’d behind the berry mead.
One stay’d as shadow through the hours of night,
One left alone for great miles out of sight.
Who had cut up the rounded moon in two,
Half shining cushions, half on miles that grew?

(VI. 1519-1526)

See also

Related Research Articles

Alexandrine Line of poetic meter comprising 12 syllables

Alexandrine is a name used for several distinct types of verse line with related metrical structures, most of which are ultimately derived from the classical French alexandrine. The line's name derives from its use in the Medieval French Roman d'Alexandre of 1170, although it had already been used several decades earlier in Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. The foundation of most alexandrines consists of two hemistichs (half-lines) of six syllables each, separated by a caesura :

o o o o o o | o o o o o o  o=any syllable; |=caesura

A couplet is a pair of successive lines of metre in poetry. A couplet usually consists of two successive lines that rhyme and have the same metre. A couplet may be formal (closed) or run-on (open). In a formal couplet, each of the two lines is end-stopped, implying that there is a grammatical pause at the end of a line of verse. In a run-on couplet, the meaning of the first line continues to the second.

Hexameter is a metrical line of verses consisting of six feet. It was the standard epic metre in classical Greek and Latin literature, such as in the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid. Its use in other genres of composition include Horace's satires, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the Hymns of Orpheus. According to Greek mythology, hexameter was invented by Phemonoe, daughter of Apollo and the first Pythia of Delphi.

In poetry, metre or meter is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study and the actual use of metres and forms of versification are both known as prosody.

Poetry Form of literature

Poetry, also called verse, is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and often rhythmic qualities of language − such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre − to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, a prosaic ostensible meaning. A poem is a literary composition, written by a poet, using this principle.

A quatrain is a type of stanza, or a complete poem, consisting of four lines.

Rhyme royal is a rhyming stanza form that was introduced to English poetry by Geoffrey Chaucer. The form enjoyed significant success in the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth century. It has had a more subdued but continuing influence on English verse in more recent centuries.

Mock-heroic, mock-epic or heroi-comic works are typically satires or parodies that mock common Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.

In Latin literature, Augustan poetry is the poetry that flourished during the reign of Caesar Augustus as Emperor of Rome, most notably including the works of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. In English literature, Augustan poetry is a branch of Augustan literature, and refers to the poetry of the 18th century, specifically the first half of the century. The term comes most originally from a term that George I had used for himself. He saw himself as an Augustus. Therefore, the British poets picked up that term as a way of referring to their own endeavors, for it fit in another respect: 18th-century English poetry was political, satirical, and marked by the central philosophical problem of whether the individual or society took precedence as the subject of verse.

<i>The Tale of Kieu</i> Epic poem in Vietnamese written by Nguyễn Du (1766–1820)

The Tale of Kiều is an epic poem in Vietnamese written by Nguyễn Du (1765–1820), considered the most famous poem and a classic in Vietnamese literature. The original title in Vietnamese is Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh, but it is better known as Truyện Kiều.

Iambic pentameter is a type of metric line used in traditional English poetry and verse drama. The term describes the rhythm, or meter, established by the words in that line; rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables called "feet". "Iambic" refers to the type of foot used, here the iamb, which in English indicates an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. "Pentameter" indicates a line of five "feet".

Heroic verse Class of poetic verse

Heroic verse is a term that may be used to designate epic poems, but which is more usually used to describe the meter(s) in which those poems are most typically written. Isidore of Seville wrote of heroic verse : "in it the affairs and deeds of brave men are narrated… and this meter precedes others in status", already somewhat conflating the content and its meter. Because the meter typically used to narrate heroic deeds differs by language and even within language by period, the specific meaning of "heroic verse" is dependent upon context.

Restoration literature Literature written during the English restoration

Restoration literature is the English literature written during the historical period commonly referred to as the English Restoration (1660–1689), which corresponds to the last years of Stuart reign in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In general, the term is used to denote roughly homogenous styles of literature that centre on a celebration of or reaction to the restored court of Charles II. It is a literature that includes extremes, for it encompasses both Paradise Lost and the Earl of Rochester's Sodom, the high-spirited sexual comedy of The Country Wife and the moral wisdom of The Pilgrim's Progress. It saw Locke's Treatises of Government, the founding of the Royal Society, the experiments and holy meditations of Robert Boyle, the hysterical attacks on theatres from Jeremy Collier, and the pioneering of literary criticism from John Dryden and John Dennis. The period witnessed news becoming a commodity, the essay developing into a periodical art form, and the beginnings of textual criticism.

Heroic drama

Heroic drama is a type of play popular during the Restoration era in England, distinguished by both its verse structure and its subject matter. The subgenre of heroic drama evolved through several works of the middle to later 1660s; John Dryden's The Indian Emperour (1665) and Roger Boyle's The Black Prince (1667) were key developments.

In poetry, a fourteener is a line consisting of 14 syllables, which are usually made of seven iambic feet, for which the style is also called iambic heptameter. It is most commonly found in English poetry produced in the 16th and 17th centuries. Fourteeners often appear as rhymed couplets, in which case they may be seen as ballad stanza or common metre hymn quatrains in two rather than four lines.

This glossary of literary terms is a list of definitions of terms and concepts used in the discussion, classification, analysis, and criticism of all types of literature, such as poetry, novels, and picture books, as well as of grammar, syntax, and language techniques. For a more complete glossary of terms relating to poetry in particular, see Glossary of poetry terms.

This is a glossary of poetry.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and introduction to poetry:

A line is a unit of language into which a poem or play is divided. The use of a line operates on principles which are distinct from and not necessarily coincident with grammatical structures, such as the sentence or single clauses in sentences. Although the word for a single poetic line is verse, that term now tends to be used to signify poetic form more generally. A line break is the termination of the line of a poem and the beginning of a new line.

Decasyllabic quatrain is a poetic form in which each stanza consists of four lines of ten syllables each, usually with a rhyme scheme of AABB or ABAB. Examples of the decasyllabic quatrain in heroic couplets appear in some of the earliest texts in the English language, as Geoffrey Chaucer created the heroic couplet and used it in The Canterbury Tales. The alternating form came to prominence in late 16th-Century English poetry and became fashionable in the 17th Century when it appeared in heroic poems by William Davenant and John Dryden. In the 18th Century famous poets such as Thomas Gray continued to use the form in works such as "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard". Shakespearean Sonnets, comprising 3 quatrains of iambic pentameter followed by a final couplet, as well as later poems in blank verse have displayed the various uses of the decasyllabic quatrain throughout the history of English Poetry.


  1. Hobsbaum, Philip. Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form. Routledge (1996) p.23
  2. Ferrando, Ignasi Navarro (1996). In-roads of Language: Essay in English Studies. Universitat Jaume I. p. 125.
  3. "Tái hiện vẻ đẹp thi ca của Truyện Kiều bằng tiếng Anh". Nhân Dân. Retrieved 7 January 2022.
  4. Binh, Nguyen (2021). The Tale of Kiều: A New Cry of Heart-Rending Pain. Writers Association Publishing House.