A couplet is a literary device that is made up of two rhyming lines of verse. These fall in succession, or one after another.
These lines usually have the same meter, or number of syllables and stresses. Together these two lines often form one sentence or finish a complete thought. Couplets might in some cases make up an entire poem. For instance, a poem that contains four sets of two lines. Alternatively, a couple might appear within a poem, as just one literary device among many.
Couplets are often associated with sonnets, particularly Shakespearean sonnets. They fall at the end of this form of a sonnet, finishing the poem up with a final thought. These lines can also provide the reader with a shift or turn from what the rest of the poem was about.
Purpose of Couplets
Couplets are included in poems because of their constant rhythm and the way that the pairing of lines can draw a reader’s attention to a specific thought. Often poems with the most consistent of meters make use of this form.
Examples of Couplets
Example #1 Epithalamium by Liz Lochhead
‘Epithalamium’ by Liz Lochhead is a single stanza poem that contains fourteen lines and takes on several attributes of a traditional Shakespearean sonnet. The rhyme scheme is very consistent, following the pattern of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. It can also be divided into sections, three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The “GG” in this pattern marks the couplet. Take a look at the last few lines of this poem, including the couplet:
Delight’s infectious – your friends
Put on, with glad rag finery today, your joy,
Renew in themselves the right true ends
They won’t let old griefs, old lives, destroy.
When at our lover’s feet our opened selves we’ve laid
We find ourselves, and all the world, remade.
The last two lines provide the reader with a “turn”. The poet shifts to talk more broadly on what changes after one gives themselves over to their lover. When “you” are at your “lover’s feet” and lay yourself open or them, then all the world is “remade”.
Clearly the poet, or at least the speaker who she’s channelling believes in the transformative nature of love and marriage. It is quite easy to imagine this specific piece being given or read out loud to a bride on her wedding day.
Example #2 The Year by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
‘The Year’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is a six stanza poem that is divided into couplets. Wilcox chose to structure this piece with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of aa bb cc, and so on throughout the six couplets. Here are the first two couplets from the text:
What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That’s not been said a thousand times?
The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.
The first lines of the poem are a rhetorical question aimed at the reader or the intended listener. It is clear she does not expect an answer, instead, she carries on in an effort to answer it herself. The question is presented at the start of the poem in order to allow the reader to think over its meaning. The statement is contained within the two lines and made more powerful and impactful because of it. The same can be said for the following two lines and those that come after.
Example #3 Trees by Joyce Kilmer
‘Trees’ is made up of twelve lines which are separated into six sets of two lines, or couplets. They can be seen in this consistent rhyme scheme of aa bb cc dd ee aa. As is common with poems made up of couplets, the lines also conform to a metrical pattern. Here are the first four lines:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
The simplicity of the language and rhyme is benefited by the couplet structure. Readers can move easily between the short stanzas, taking in statement after statement about the nature of trees and poetry.