Heroic Couplets: What They Are and What They Do

Learn all about heroic couplets and see examples by famous poets

The Iliad - Homer
Many epic poems were translated into English using heroic couplets. duncan1890 / Getty Images

Heroic couplets are paired, rhyming lines of poetry (usually iambic pentameter) found in epic or long narrative English poetry and translations. As you’ll see, there are a variety of qualities that distinguish heroic couplets from regular couplets.

Definition of a Couplet

A couplet is two lines of poetry that are right next to each other. And, more important, they are related and together make up a complete thought or sentence. Their thematic or syntactical connection is more significant than their physical closeness. This quote from "Romeo and Juliet" is a great example of a couplet:

Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

These lines from Phillis Wheatley's "On Virtue," however, are not a couplet:

But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand…

So while all couplets are two consecutive lines, not all pairs of consecutive lines are couplets. To be a couplet, the lines have to be a unit, generally self-contained, and complete. The lines can either be part of a larger stanza or a closed stanza by themselves. 

Definition of a Heroic Couplet

Several characteristics distinguish a heroic couplet from a regular couplet. A heroic couplet is always rhymed and is usually in iambic pentameter (although there is some variation of the meter). The heroic couplet is also usually closed, meaning that both lines are end-stopped (by some type of punctuation), and the lines are a self-contained grammatical unit.

This quote from Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 116" is a great example of a rhymed, closed, iambic pentameter couplet. It is not, however, a heroic couplet.

If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

This brings us to the final qualification: context. For a couplet to be heroic, it needs a heroic setting. This is obviously a bit subjective, but in most cases, determining if a poem is "heroic" is fairly easy.

Examples of Heroic Couplets

Some good examples of heroic couplets from poems you may be familiar with include:

From John Dryden's translation of Virgil's "The Aeneid":

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.

So let's go through our checklist:

  1. Couplets? Yes. The passage consists of two pairs of lines that are closed grammatical units.
  2. Rhyme/meter? Check and check. These lines are tight iambic pentameter and rhymed (with a near rhyme between "join'd" and "declin'd").
  3. Heroic? Absolutely. Few writings are more heroic than "The Aeneid."

Another example:

And he bigan with right a myrie cheere
His tale anon, and seyde as ye may heere.
  1. Couplet? Yes. This is a pair of closed lines.
  2. Rhyme/meter? Yes. The rhymed lines are in iambic pentameter.
  3. Heroic? These lines are from the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," an epic, heroic tale.

A final example:

Thus conduct won the prize, when courage fail'd,
And eloquence o'er brutal force prevail'd.
  1. Couplet? Yes.
  2. Rhyme/meter? Definitely. 
  3. Heroic? Yes. This example is drawn from Ovid's "Metamorphoses," translated by Sir Samuel Garth and John Dryden.

So the next time you're wondering if the lines you're reading are heroic couplets, just check for these three things and you'll have your answer.

The Mock-Heroic and Alexander Pope

As with all influential and important literary movements and concepts, the heroic couplet has its own parody—the mock-heroic, most commonly associated with Alexander Pope.

Mock-heroic poems are thought to have been a response to the deluge of epic, pastoral, heroic poems that were being written in the 17th century. As with any cultural trend or movement, people were looking for something new, something that would subvert the established aesthetic norms (think Dada or Weird Al Yankovic). So writers and poets took the form and context of the heroic or epic poem and played around with it.

One of Pope's best-known poems "The Rape of the Lock" is a quintessential mock-heroic on both the macro and micro levels. Pope takes a minor transgression—the cutting of a young woman's hair by a suitor who wants a lock of her hair as a keepsake—and creates a narrative of epic proportions, complete with myth and magic. Pope mocks the heroic poem in two ways: by elevating a trivial moment into a kind of grand tale and by subverting formal elements, namely the heroic couplet. 

From the Third Canto, we get this oft-quoted couplet:

Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,
Dost sometimes Counsel take—and sometimes Tea.

This is, in essence, a heroic couplet (closed lines, rhymed iambic pentameter, epic setting), but there's something symbolic happening in the second line as well. Pope is juxtaposing the high language and voice of the epic poem with everyday occurrences. He sets up a moment that feels as if it belongs in Roman or Greek mythology and then undercuts it with "and sometimes tea." By using "take" to pivot between the "high" and "low" worlds—one can "take counsel" and one can "take tea"—Pope uses the conventions of the heroic couplet and bends them to his own comedic design.

Closing Thoughts

In both its original and parodic forms, the heroic couplet is an important part of Western poetry's evolution. With its driving rhythm, tight rhyme, and syntactical independence, it mirrors the subject matter it portrays—tales of adventure, war, magic, true love, and yes, even a stolen lock of hair. Because of its structure and its history and tradition, the heroic couplet is usually quite recognizable, allowing us to bring additional context to the poems we read.

Being able to identify heroic couplets in a poem allows us to see how they might influence and shape our reading and interpreting experiences.

Sources

  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue." Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43926/the-canterbury-tales-general-prologue.
  • “Couplet.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/couplet.
  • Online Library of Liberty. "The Aeneid" (Dryden Trans.) - Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org/titles/virgil-the-aeneid-dryden-trans.
  • Ovid's Metamorphoses.” Translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al., The Internet Classics Archive, Daniel C. Stevenson, classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.13.thirteenth.html.
  • Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock: An Heroic-Comical Poem. In Five Cantos." Eighteenth Century Collections Online, University of Michigan.
  • “Romeo and Juliet.” Romeo and Juliet: Entire Play, shakespeare.mit.edu/romeo_juliet/full.html.
  • Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 116: Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds." Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45106/sonnet-116-let-me-not-to-the-marriage-of-true-minds.
  • Wheatley, Phillis. “On Virtue.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45466/on-virtue.