Definition of Couplet
A couplet is a successive pair of lines in a poem. The pair of lines that comprise a couplet generally rhyme with each other and contain the same meter. Couplets are either closed, which is to say that both lines are end-stopped, or open, which is to say that there is enjambment involved and the meaning of the line runs on past the end of the line. Closed couplets are also known as formal couplets, while open couplets are sometimes called run-on couplets.
The definition of couplet comes from the French word couple, which means “a little pair.”
Types of Couplets
- Elegiac Couplet: This example of couplet was used primarily in ancient Greek poetry for themes on a smaller scale than the epic. Each couplet must make sense on its own, but also contribute to the larger meaning. An elegiac couplet is comprised of a hexameter line (i.e., six poetic feet) followed by a line in pentameter (i.e., five poetic feet). This creates a sense of rising action in the first line and falling action in the second. Ancient Greek elegy was always written with this type of couplet. (See Example #1 below)
- Heroic Couplet: A heroic couplet is fairly similar to the elegiac couplet in that it is generally closed and self-contained, and thus has meaning on its own. Heroic couplets came into popularity in the mid-14th century in English epic and narrative poetry. The meter of heroic couplets is usually iambic pentameter, though some poets took liberties with changing the meter at times to provide a sort of closure. (See Example #2)
- Chinese Couplet: Chinese couplets have two lines and have the same metrical length; like the other examples of couplets, the two lines must be contextually related. However, they must adhere to certain strict rules that involve the tonality of the characters used; the pattern of tones in the first line must be inverted in the second line (thus, Chinese couplets share a similarity with the concept of chiasmus). Chinese couplets are very commonly found on the sides of doors leading into homes and as a decoration for New Year’s as a wish for good blessings in the coming year.
There are also several forms of poetry that include couplets as an important part of the overall structure:
- Sonnet: The English sonnet form, also known as Elizabethan or Shakespearean, is a fourteen-line poem that concludes with a final couplet. The first twelve lines, divided into three quatrains, set up a situation, and the final couplet provides a sort of resolution, answer, or change in understanding. (See Example #3)
- Ghazal: The ghazal form (pronounced similarly to “guzzle”) consists of a series of no fewer than five rhyming couplets, and each line has the same meter. Each rhyming couplet is autonomous, though contributes to the overall theme of the poem. Though the lines in each couplet do not rhyme, one word is repeated as the final word of each couplet throughout the poem. The ghazal is very ancient and was a popular structure in Arabic poetry dating back to the seventh century. Its subject matter is usually melancholy, loss, love, and beauty. (See Example #4)
- Poetic Epigrams: A poetic epigram is a brief and memorable statement that often includes humorous or satirical content. The poetic epigram is a couplet or a series of couplets that have the same meter and rhyme while also commenting on something. (See Example #5)
Common Examples of Couplet
The term couplet generally only refers to poetry, though it can be found in folk songs and even some advertising. Here are some familiar examples of couplet in American culture:
Hush, little baby, don’t you cry.
Mama’s gonna sing you a lullaby.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
The best part of waking up
is Folgers in your cup.
—Advertising jingle for Folgers coffee
Significance of Couplet in Literature
It’s clear from the numerous styles of couplets that they have been a part of the literary traditions of many different cultures, from China to Northern Africa and the Middle East, from Ancient Greece to Elizabethan England. The couplet is an attractive form because it can contain so much meaning in a short pair of lines yet also lend itself to developing a longer whole. The first line often posits something that the second line answers.
Examples of Couplet in Literature
In the hexameter rises the fountain’s silvery column,
In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.
(“The Ovidian Elegiac Metre” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
This is an elegiac couplet example that Samuel Taylor Coleridge created as a translation from the German writer Friedrich Schiller’s explanation of the meter of this particular form. The couplet serves both to explain and demonstrate the way in which the combination of a hexameter and pentameter line sound together. The elegiac couplet thus seems to mimic the natural inhalation and exhalation of every person—something rising with meaning and then, just as quickly, falling away.
There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
170 To every human being: I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.
(“Canto Two” from Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov)
This is an interesting example of heroic couplets from Vladimir Nabokov’s meta-novel Pale Fire. Part of the novel includes a 999-line poem that Nabokov himself wrote, yet attributes to a character in the novel. This long poem is written in a series of heroic couplets, as we can see in the above excerpt. Each set of two lines rhymes and contains a certain intrinsic unity.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)
This is the final couplet from one of William Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets (the opening line to this sonnet is the familiar “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and it is a great example of the function of a final couplet in English sonnets. The majority of the poem describes wondrousness of the narrator’s lover, but also the way in which beauty fades over time. The narrator concludes with the optimistic sentiment that even after the beauty of this lover fades, the words of this sonnet will serve as memorial for the beauty that once was. The couplet provides a lovely conclusion to the poem, but is also a wonderful stand-alone message for the importance of literature.
Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you’d poured–what?–even the rain.
Of this pear-shaped orange’s perfumed twist, I will say:
Extract Vermouth from the bergamot, even the rain.
How did the Enemy love you–with earth? air? and fire?
He held just one thing back till he got even: the rain.
(“Even the Rain” by Agha Shahid Ali)
This is an excerpt from a modern ghazal by the poet Agha Shahid Ali. Several of the key features of ghazal couplets can be seen in these lines. The second line of each couplet ends with the words “even the rain,” though Shahid Ali clearly plays around with the meaning of these three words together (for example, the third couplet in this excerpt uses the word “even” in a different way than the other two couplets). Each couplet contains its own meaning, yet the way in which Shahid Ali builds the theme from one couplet to the next is masterful.
Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she’s at rest – and so am I.
(by John Dryden)
This is a short and humorous poetic epigram from the poet John Dryden, written satirically for his wife. This is an example of a couplet which is completely stand-alone, and is not connected to a larger poem.
Test Your Knowledge of Couplet
1. Which of the following statements is the best couplet definition?
A. A line written in iambic pentameter.
B. A pair of two lines always found in a larger poem.
C. A successive pair of lines that generally rhyme and have the same meter.
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2. Identify the couplet in these two-line pairs from William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
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3. Consider the following definition of a couplet:
Two lines, the first of which is written in hexameter and the second of which is written in pentameter.
Which kind of couplet does this describe?
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