Sunday, June 4, 2017

Heroic Couplets

Are you teaching advanced students? Here is a good lesson on a poetry form… 

Learn all about heroic couplets and see examples by famous poets 

Heroic couplets are paired, rhyming lines of poetry (usually iambic pentameter) found in epic/long narrative English poetry/translations. As we’ll see, there are a variety of qualities that distinguish heroic couplets from regular couplets.

What Is a Heroic Couplet?

Let’s back up a little. First of all, what is a couplet? A couplet is just two lines of poetry right next to each other. And, generally speaking, they are related, or together make up a complete thought or sentence.

Their thematic or syntactical connection is more important than their physical closeness. This example from Romeo and Juliet is a great example of a couplet:

Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

These lines from Phyllis Wheatley's "On Virtue," however are not a couple.

But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand…

This example is just two lines pulled from the middle of her poem.

So, while all couplets are two consecutive lines, not all two consecutive lines are couplets. To be a couplet, the lines have to be a unit, generally self-contained and complete.

What distinguishes a heroic couplet from a regular one? A heroic couplet is always rhymed, and usually iambic pentameter (although there is some variation of the meter). The heroic couplet is also usually closed, meaning that both lines are end-stopped (by some kind of punctuation), and that the couplet is a self-contained grammatical unit.

If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

This quote from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 is a great example of a rhymed, closed, iambic pentameter couplet. It’s still not heroic, though.

Which brings us to the final qualification: context. For a couplet to be heroic, it needs a heroic setting. This is obviously a bit subjective, but in most cases, determining if a poem is "heroic" is fairly easy. 

Examples of Heroic Couplets

Here are some good example of heroic couplets from poets and poems you may have heard of.
From John Dryden's translation of Virgil's The Aeneid:
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.
So let's go through our little checklist:
  1. Couplets? Yes. Pairs of lines that are "closed" grammatical units.
  2. Rhyme/meter? Check and check. These lines are tight iambic pentameter, and rhymed (with a slant rhyme between "join'd" and "declin'd."
  3. Heroic? Yep. Nothing is more heroic than The Aeneid.  
Here's another one:
And he bigan with right a myrie cheere
His tale anon, and seyde as ye may heere.
  1. Couplet? Yes. Two closed lines.
  2. Rhyme/meter? Yes. Rhymed lines of iambic pentameter.
  3. Heroic? These lines are from the Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Definitely epic.
So the next time you're wondering if what you're reading are heroic couplets, just check for these three things, and you'll be all set.

The Mock Heroic and Alexander Pope

As with all influential and important literary movements and concepts, the heroic couplet has its own parody—the mock heroic, most commonly associated with Alexander Pope.
Mock heroic poems are thought to be a response to the deluge of epic, pastoral, heroic poems that were being written in the 17th century. As with any cultural trend or movement, people were looking for something new, something that would subvert the established aesthetic norms (think Dadaism or Weird Al). So, writers and poets took the form and context of the heroic/epic poem, and played around with it.

One of Pope's best known poems "The Rape of the Lock" is a quintessential mock heroic on both the macro and micro levels. Pope takes a minor transgression--the cutting of a young woman's hair by suitor, who wants a lock of her hair as a keepsake--becomes a narrative of epic proportions, complete with myth and magic. Pope mocks the heroic poem in two ways: by elevating a trivial moment into a kind of grand tale, and by subverting formal elements, namely the heroic couplet.

From the Third Canto, we get this oft-quoted couplet:
Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.

This is, in essence, a heroic couplet (closed lines, rhymed iambic pentameter, "epic" setting). But there's something symbolic happening in the second line, as well. Pope is juxtaposing the high language and voice of the Epic with everyday occurrences. He sets up a moment that feels like it belongs in Greek or Roman mythology, and then undercuts it with "and sometimes tea." By using "take" as a pivot between "high" and "low" worlds—one can "take counsel" and one can "take tea"—Pope uses the conventions of the heroic couplet and bends them to his own, comedic design.

Closing Thoughts

In both its original and played-upon forms, the heroic couplet is an important part of poetry's evolution. With its driving rhythm, tight rhyme, and syntactical independence, it mirrors the subject matter it portrays—tales of adventure, war, magic, true love, and yes, even a stolen lock of hair.

Because of its history and tradition, the heroic couplet is usually very recognizable, letting us bring a further context to the poem we're reading. If a work uses heroic couplets, what does that do for the poem? Are we supposed to read it "straight," and take the poem as part of an Epic tradition? Or are we meant to see the form contrasted with the subject matter, poking fun at conventions? Either way, being able to identify heroic couplets in a poem allows us to see how those couplets influence and shape our reading and interpreting experiences.

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