An open couplet usually rhymes and requires that readers finish both lines to get a complete image. They are often contrasted with closed couplets (a form that consists of two complete sentences, using punctuation at the end of both lines).
Explore the Open Couplet
Open Couplet Definition
An open couplet is a set of two lines in poetry. The first line uses enjambment. This means that it is cut off before its natural stopping point. Readers have to move down to the second line of the couplet in order to finish the statement that started in the first line.
It is also common to find open couplets written in iambic pentameter. This is the most common meter used in English language poetry. It refers to a line that contains a total of ten syllables. These ten syllables can be divided into five sets of two beats. The first beat, or syllable, of each set is unstressed or accented. The second beat or syllable is stressed or accented. Below, readers can explore several examples of poems that use both open and closed couplets.
Examples of Open Couplets
How to Write the Great American Indian Novel by Sherman Alexie
‘How to Write the Great American Indian Novel’ is a contemporary poem written by Sherman Alexie. In the poem, the speaker discusses the necessary physical, mental, and emotional traits the characters in a “great American Indian novel” must possess. The speaker forces the reader to think about the stereotypes surrounding Native American culture.
This piece does not use a set rhyme scheme. Therefore, it does not conform to all of the traditional characteristics of open couplets. But, despite this, there are still several great examples. Here are the first three couplets:
All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms.
Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food.
The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably
from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.
If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender
and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man
Of these three couplets, the second and third are open couplets, and the first is a closed couplet. The first couplet features end punctuation in both lines. The second and third couplets do not.
Discover more Sherman Alexie poems.
This piece is about the lives of simple, hardworking people. As it progresses, it takes a more mystical turn. At the beginning of ‘The Tuft of Flowers,’ the speaker goes to “turn the grass” after it has been mowed by a neighboring farmer. But, he is disappointed to see that he has already left and that he must complete the task alone. His spirits lift, however, at the surprise arrival of a butterfly. The poem is entirely made up of couplets, as is the previous example. Here are the first three couplets:
I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.
I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
Of these three examples, the first two couplets are open and the third is a closed couplet. This is due to the fact that the poet used a semicolon after the word “trees.” In the other two couplets, the words “one” and “keen” end lines with enjambment.
Read more Robert Frost poems.
Bermudas by Andrew Marvell
‘Bermudas’ is a less commonly read Andrew Marvell poem. This piece ends with a quatrain or a four-line stanza, that is made up of two couplets. The piece describes the feelings of a group of English pilgrims who have fled from the religious persecution of Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. Here is the last stanza of ‘Bermudas:’
Thus sung they in the English boat
An holy and a cheerful note,
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.
The final stanza is four lines long. These four lines contain two couplets. The first of which is an open couplet and the second of which is a closed couplet. The use of a comma at “chime” closes the line, while the lack of punctuation after “boat” leaves that couplet open.
Read more Andrew Marvell poems.
Open Couplet or Closed Couplet?
While it may seem overly complicated to distinguish between open couplets and closed couplets, when you understand the differences between the two, it is quite simple to tell which is which. An open couplet is as it sounds— open. The first of the two lines do not use end punctuation. This means that it does not conclude a period, comma, question mark, semi-colon, or any other form of punctuation at the end of the line. Readers have to move down to the second line of the couplet in order to conclude the previous. This is also known as enjambment.
A closed couplet features punctuation at the end of both lines. The best examples use a period at the end of both lines of the couplet, but periods are not necessary to create a closed couplet.
Poets use open couplets when they want readers to flow smoothly from one line of the couplet to the next, without a pause. The use of end-stopped lines requires readers to pause for a second before moving down to the second line of the couplet.
An example of an open couplet is: “The dew was gone that made his blade so keen / Before I came to view the levelled scene.” These lines from Robert Frost’s ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ show that the first line is an example of enjambment. The line does not end with a specific example of end punctuation.
Related Literary Terms
- Couplet: two, usually, rhyming lines of verse. These fall in succession, or one after another.
- Enjambment: occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.
- End-Stopped Line: a pause that occurs at the end of a line of poetry. It might conclude a phrase or sentence.
- Heroic Couplet: a form of poetry commonly used in epics and narrative poems. It is composed of a pair of rhyming lines that are written in iambic pentameter.
- Closed Couplet: a pair of lines that are grammatically complete, or at least logically complete, on their own. They also usually rhyme.