Couplet

Definition of Couplet

A couplet is a literary device featuring two consecutive lines of poetry that typically rhyme and have the same meter. A couplet can be part of a poem or a poem on its own. Though the two lines of verse that make up a couplet are usually connected by rhythm, meter, and rhyme, not all couplets rhyme and not all couplets have similar syllabic patterns. However, a couplet must consist of two lines of verse that follow each other and create a complete thought or idea.

For example, Alexander Pope effectively utilizes a couplet in Epistles to Several Persons:

‘Tis education forms the common mind,

Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.

The lines of Pope’s couplet are linked by a complete thought, and the brief, lyrical language creates a memorable image for the reader of the power of education to influence a person. In this case, the lines of the couplet rhyme and are both written in iambic pentameter. This language, imagery, and structure combine to create a meaningful couplet and idea regarding the impact of education on “the common mind.”

Types of Couplet

A couplet is a short stanza in poetry that groups an idea and is defined by meter, rhyme scheme, and origin. Here are specific types of couplets:

  • Heroic: This couplet is written in rhymed iambic pentameter and is the most commonly used in English poetry.
  • Split: This couplet features an asymmetrical rhythm with the first line in iambic pentameter and the next in iambic dimeter.
  • Open: This couplet flows from the first line to the second as a continuous sentence; also known as a run-on couplet.
  • Closed: This couplet features two separate sentences; also known as a formal couplet.
  • Chinese: In Chinese poetry, a couplet is an individual poem that are generally for special occasions and feature wishes for a prosperous life.
  • Qasida: This is an Arabic poem that features a series of couplets.

Examples of Couplet in Shakespearean Sonnets

One of the defining features of an English, or Shakespearean, sonnet is a separate, rhyming couplet at its conclusion. This couplet signifies a succinct end to this poetic form, summarizing the meaning of the poem and leaving the reader with a lasting impression.

Here are some examples of concluding couplets from the sonnets of William Shakespeare:

  • But if thou live, remembered not to be,
    Die single and thine image dies with thee. (III)
  • For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
    Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds. (XCIV)
  • If thy unworthiness raised love in me,
    More worthy I to be beloved of thee. (CL)
  • For nothing this wide universe I call,
    Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all. (CIX)
  • For as the sun is daily new and old,
    So is my love still telling what is told. (LXXVI)

Examples of Couplet in Children’s Poetry

Couplets are featured frequently in poems for children. This is largely due to one of the defining characteristics of a couplet, which is forming a complete thought or idea within the two lines. Couplets are therefore easy for children to understand, and their rhythm and rhyme allow poets to be playful with language and word choice. Here are some examples of couplets in children’s poetry:

Couplets from Dr. Seuss

  • That day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches. / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
  • I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny, / but we can have lots of good fun that is funny.
  • I do not like green eggs and ham. / I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.
  • Ten thousand feet up, up the side of Mount Crumpet, / He rode with his load to the tiptop to dump it!
  • In the house and on the street, / How many, many feet you meet.

Couplets from Shel Silverstein

  • If the track is tough and the hill is rough, / THINKING you can just ain’t enough!
  • I have the measles and the mumps, / A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
  • Said the little boy, “I often cry.” / The old man nodded, “So do I.”
  • I will not play at tug o’ war. / I’d rather play at hug o’ war
  • If you’re fat, that’s fine with me. / If you’re skinny, let it be.

Couplets from Nursery Rhymes

  • Little Miss Muffet / Sat on a tuffet
  • Little Jack Horner / Sat in the corner
  • Hey diddle diddle / The cat and the fiddle
  • Hickory, dickory, dock / The mouse ran up the clock
  • Old Mother Hubbard / Went to the cupboard

Examples of Couplet in Literature

Couplets are an important literary device in poetry. As part of an overall poetic work, or as poems on their own, couplets allow writers to have an impact through condensed wording of a complete idea within two lines of verse. This draws the reader’s attention to their lyrical language, rhythm, and rhyme, and creates memorable imagery. Here are some examples of couplet in literature:

Example 1: The Miller’s Tale (Geoffrey Chaucer)

This carpenter hadde wedded newe a wyf,

Which that he lovede moore than his lyf;

Of eighteteene yeer she was of age.

Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage,

For she was wylde and yong, and he was old

And demed hymself been lik a cokewold.

In his work the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer utilized couplet as the most common rhyme scheme in his verses. In fact, Chaucer is credited with pioneering the heroic couplet as a literary device in English poetry. This traditional couplet form features a rhyming pair of consecutive poetic lines, written in iambic pentameter. Heroic couplets are common in epic and narrative English poetry, They provide a unique experience for readers in that a couplet expresses an idea by creating and resolving a thought in two lines of verse. This becomes a form of finite narrative and emphasizes the poet’s meaning, as each couplet can be understood as an entity of its own as well as part of the overall meaning of a larger poem.

For example, the first couplet in this passage of “The Miller’s Tale” emphasizes that the carpenter has wedded a new wife and that he loves her more than his own life. By emphasizing this idea, the subsequent couplets make sense to the reader: the wife is only eighteen years old which makes the carpenter jealous, so he attempts to “cage” her because of her youth and wildness and his fear of becoming a cuckold. Each couplet, though concise, adds further and greater significance to the poem as a whole.

Example 2: The Tyger (William Blake)

Tyger, Tyger burning bright.
In the forest of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

Blake’s opening couplets in his well-known poem set a quick pace for the reader that brings a level of rhythm and urgency to the literary work, supporting the poet’s abundant queries as the structure of the poem. This enhances the visual narrative of the poem as well. By utilizing just a few words such as “burning bright,” Blake creates colorful and dramatic imagery that evokes feelings of awe, fear, and beauty as a result of creation.

Example 3: Funeral Blues (W.H. Auden)

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

A unique characteristic of couplet as a literary device is its ability to be part of a larger poem yet still make sense as it stands alone. This creates an impact for the reader in that the poet’s ideas are pared down into two lines of verse. Therefore, the poet’s careful word choice is imperative in order to evoke emotion, establish tone, and form characterization for the reader. In Auden’s poem, each couplet features deliberate wording and phrasing in order to establish and emphasize the poet’s lost love and subsequent loss of faith and meaning in the world.

For example, in the first two couplets of Auden’s poem, the poet expresses his desire for the world to be silent and join in his mourning by mentioning common things that create background noise, such as clocks, telephones, dogs, and pianos. This calls the reader’s attention and focus to the poem and emphasizes the significance of the poet’s loss. The third stanza features two couplets that mention each cardinal direction, weekdays, and significant time intervals. These are carefully chosen words to convey to the reader how much the poet’s love was a part of his life and the power of his absence. Finally, in the two concluding couplets, the poet reveals to the reader how the world has lost meaning to him. The death of his love has caused him to want an “undoing” of creation so that even the natural world is taken away and silenced. All of Auden’s couplets in this poem can stand alone as individual thoughts. However, they function together to create a poem of love, loss, and grief.