Heroic couplets were famously used by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Legend of a Good Women and The Canterbury Tales. The latter is often cited as the best example of the form at the time. As the years progressed, the form was used by Alexander Pope and John Dryden during the Restoration Age of poetry.
Most commonly, the couplet form is used when the poet wants to make a confined statement. The two lines may stand by themselves and will most likely contain a statement entirely, without enjambment.
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Heroic Couplet Definition
A heroic couplet is a set of two lines that rhyme and that is written in iambic pentameter. This means that the lines contain ten syllables each.
They are divided into pairs of two; each of these is known as a metrical “foot.” Within the foot, one of the syllables is unstressed, and the second is stressed. Iambic pentameter is the most commonly metrical pattern used throughout English verse.
Sometimes, readers will find examples of couplets that are accompanied by or changed by the use of an alexandrine. There are also examples in which triplets are used. Sometimes, the meter will also vary slightly.
Heroic Couplet Examples
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
This incredibly famous poem is a collection of twenty-four stories, written in verse, that were written between 1387 and 1400. The poem contains over 17,000 lines. Throughout this piece, readers can find examples of heroic couplets. Consider these lines below:
She was a worthy womman Al hir life
Housebondes at church Dore she hadde five
Withouten other companye in youthe;
But therof nedeth nat to speke as nouthe.
And thryes hadde she been at Ierusalem;
She hadde passed many a straunge streem;
In these lines, there are two examples of heroic couplets. The first two lines, ending with “life” and “five,” as well as the last two, ending in “Jerusalem” and “streem.” These lines are found in the General Prologue.
Explore more Geoffrey Chaucer poems.
Aeneid by Virgil
Virgil’s Aeneid is another very famous example of an epic poem that contains heroic couplets. It was written between 29 BC and 19 BC and told the story of Aeneas, a trojan who made it out of the city of Troy as the city was destroyed by the Greeks. He, along with the remaining Trojans, travel to Italy. Here is a passage from the epic poem that uses heroic couplets:
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
These four lines are the most commonly cited for heroic couplets in the epic poem. They both contain two lines with ten syllables each. These lines are written in iambic pentameter and contain rhyming end words. “Join’d” rhymes with “declin’d” (through the poet’s use of syncope and a half-rhyme), and “lie” rhymes with “sky.”
Cooper’s Hill by John Denham
This piece was written in the 1600s and is far less popular than the other examples listed above. But, it still serves to show the way that these couplets were used. ‘Cooper’s Hill’ is Denham’s best-known literary work and is the first poem devoted to describing the Thames Valley and the surrounding area. Denham was specifically focused on the area around his home in Surrey. Readers may find themselves reading different versions of this poem. Denham published several, all of which include references to the important social and political moments in England. Consider the following lines as examples of heroic couplets:
O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep yet clear, though gentle yet not dull;
Strong without rage, without o’erflowing full.
These two couplets are both written in iambic pentameter. They also use rhyming words. “Stream” rhymes with “theme” in the first pairing, and “dull” rhymes with “full” in the second pairing.
A heroic couplet is a set of two lines. These lines rhyme with one another and are written in iambic pentameter. This refers to the number of syllables per line and where the stresses fall.
Poets like Geoffrey Chaucer and Alexander Pope are often considered famous for their use of heroic couplets. John Dryden also commonly used them. Including in his translation of the Aeneid by Virgil.
A couplet is two lines in poetry. Usually, these two lines rhyme with one another and/or are separated from the other lines in a poem. For example, the couplet that ends most Shakespearean sonnets.
Related Literary Terms
- Canto: a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines but it is normally much longer.
- Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
- Epic Simile: a long poetic comparison, that uses like or as, and which goes on for several lines. It grows more complicated and reveals its meaning as the lines progress.
- Narrative Poem: contains all the elements of a story and are normally longer than average.
- Tragic Hero: usually the protagonist in a piece of literature. Specifically, a tragedy. This kind of character has a tragic flaw.
- Hero: the principal or primary character of a work.
- Read: Cooper’s Hill by John Denham
- Watch: What is epic poetry?
- Listen: Everything you need to know to read ‘The Canterbury Tales’