What is a Couplet in Literature? Definition, Examples of Couplets

Couplet definition: A couplet is two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme.

What is a Couplet in Literature?

A couplet is two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme. Couplets are written in verse form and typically follow a metrical pattern such as iambic pentameter.

Example of Couplets

Shakespearean sonnets employ the use of couplets in the last two lines. The popular “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare ends with the couplet,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Types of Couplet

There are different types are couplets in literature.

Elegiac Couplet Definition: Originating from Greek and later adopted by Roman’s Latin, elegiac couplets follow a specific metrical pattern. They alternate between lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter lines. Here is an example from Dylan Thomas’ “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.”

The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,

Secret by the unmourning water

Heroic Couplet Definition: Heroic couplets are comprised of two successive, rhyming lines that are written in iambic pentameter. There are two types of heroic couplets. Open couplets are rely on the other lines of verse and together they make sense; however, closed couplets contain a single thought or idea in isolation.

Here is an open heroic couplet from Christopher Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander” in which each couplet relies on the lines surrounding it for the complete idea:

At Sestos Hero dwelt; Hero the fair,

Whom young Apollo courted for her hair,

And offered as a dower his burning throne,

Where she should sit for men to gaze upon.

The outside of her garments were of lawn,

The lining purple silk with gilt stars drawn.

In this example of a closed heroic couplet from Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” the couplets in isolation represent separate thoughts or ideas:

Meanwhile, declining from the noon of day,

The sun obliquely shoots his burning ray;

The hungry judges soon the sentence sign,

And wretches hang that jurymen may dine…

Shakespearean Couplet Definition: These couplets were often used as the end of English sonnets. They consists of lines written in iambic pentameter and often revealed the theme to his poems. While they contribute to the theme of a sonnet, they also can be used as stand alone messages.

Here is an example of a Shakespearean couplet from “Sonnet 73:”

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Chinese Couplet Definition: These couplets consist of two equal length lines that have identical tones. These couplets are a traditional form of Chinese verse and are often carved into wood or written in calligraphy to be hung outside of doorways.

Here is an example of a Chinese couplet:

A wide sea lets fish jump;

a high sky lets birds fly,

The Function of Couplets

Couplets have been an important form of verse in poetry for many years. They allow the poet to convey a strong message through the use of rhythm and meter using minimal lines.

Examples of Couplets in Literature

The poem “Imitations of Horace” by Alexander Pope uses open heroic couplets in the first stanza:

While you, great patron of mankind, sustain

The balanc’d world, and open all the main;

Your country, chief, in arms abroad defend;

At home, with morals, arts, and laws amend;

How shall the Muse, from such a monarch steal

An hour, and not defraud the public weal?

The Shakespearean couplet can be seen in the last two lines of “Sonnet 24” by William Shakespeare:

Mine eye hath played the painter and hath steeled,

Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;

My body is the frame wherein ‘tis held,

And perspective that is best painter’s art.

For through the painter must you see his skill,

To find where your true image pictured lies,

Which in my bosom’s shop is hanging still,

That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes.

Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:

Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me

Are windows to my breast, where-through the sun

Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee;

Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art,

They draw but what they see, know not the heart.

Summary: What are Couplets?

Define couplet in literature: A couplet is two successive lines of verse that rhyme and typically follow a metrical pattern.

Final Example:

Here is a final example from Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love:”

A gown made of the finest wool

Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;

Fair lined slippers for the cold,

With buckles of the purest gold.