About Heroic Couplets

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Heroic Couplets

The term Heroic refers to Iambic Pentameter and Couplets refers to any two, paired, rhyming lines.

Open Heroic Couplets: Open Heroic couplets are rhyming couplets that are enjambed.

Closed Heroic Couplets: Closed Heroic couplets are rhyming couplets that are, first and foremost, syntactically discrete, meaning that each couplet is end-stopped with the end-of-couplet rhyme.

Open Heroic Couplets

Open Heroic Couplets can also be called riding rhyme – a term coined by Puttenham and Gascoigne to describe and differenitate Chaucer’s rhyming heroic couplets from the (in their day) rapidly increasing popularity of Closed Heroic Couplets. I personally love the term riding rhyme and prefer it. One of the first Iambic Pentameter poems I wrote, a fable called the Monkey and the Crane, is written in riding rhymes. The greatest example, in my opinion, was written by Christopher Marlowe – his Hero and Leander.

kit-marloweAt 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;
Her wide sleeves green, and bordered with a grove,
Where Venus in her naked glory strove
To please the careless and disdainful eyes
Of proud Adonis, that before her lies.
Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,
Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain.
Upon her head she ware a myrtle wreath,
From whence her veil reached to the ground beneath.
Her veil was artificial flowers and leaves
Whose workmanship both man and beast deceives.
Many would praise the sweet smell as she passed,
When ’twas the odour which her breath forth cast;
And there for honey bees have sought in vain,
And, beat from thence, have lighted there again.
About her neck hung chains of pebblestone,
Which, lightened by her neck, like diamonds shone.

While Marlowe is fairly conservative with his enjambment (he was murdered at the start of his career), notice the following lines:

Her wide sleeves green, and bordered with a grove,
Where Venus in her naked glory strove
To please
the careless and disdainful eyes
Of proud Adonis

The end-of-couplet strove is enjambed, it’s syntactic and phrasal sense carries over into the next line. In poetic terms, there is no caesura or pause after strove, usually indicated by punctuation. This, in a nutshell, is what typifies Open Heroic Couplets. By way of comparison, take a look at the opening to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (the poet who was the first, as far as we know, to make use the form. )

Marlowe was murdered (a great reckoning in a little room as Shakespeare called it) before he could complete Hero and Leander. George Chapman picked up where Marlowe left off (completing Hero and Leander), not the genius that Marlowe was, but a fine poet nonetheless. Chapman’s own heroic couplets further break down the formality of a coinciding rhyme and pause. See Chapman’s Odyssey as well. Ben Jonson and John Donne were also writing heroic couplets during this period and, if you like the form, they’re worth reading.  By the mid-sixteenth century the presence of couplets were almost made invisible – thought and sense flowed from one line to the next without any relationship to the couplets.

This evolution of the open heroic couplet, as such, reach a kind of apogee in Chamberlayne’s Romance (book length) Pharonnida, written in 1659. Because of literature like this, the open heroic couplet also came to be known as the romance couplet. It was a model that Milton would later reject when he chose a verse form for Paradise Lost. He wanted to write an Epic, not a romance.

That all changed with the Restoration.

Closed Herioc Couplets

Closed and Open Heroic Couplets both got their start at roughly the same time – about 1590 to 1600, when Shakespeare was establishing himself. princeton-encyclopediaThe appearance of heroic couplets was mostly due to a rash of Latin translations during this period – Ovid’s Amores and Heroides along with Martial’s Epigrammation (a tip of the hat to The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics for some of this information). The couplets, in English, were apparenty meant to imitate the Latin distich. A distich is defined as “a unit of verse consisting of two lines, especially as used in Greek and Latin elegiac poetry.” The online Literary Dictionary goes on to say:

distich [dis‐tik], a pair of verse lines, usually making complete sense, as in the closed couplet. The term is most often applied to the Greek verse form in which a dactylic hexameter is followed by a ‘pentameter’ (actually composed of two dactylic half‐lines of two‐and‐a‐half feet each). This form, known as the elegiac distich or elegiac couplet, was used in Greek and Latin verse for elegies and epigrams, and later by some German poets including Goethe.

The  thing to note is that in Latin, the “pair” of verse lines didn’t necessarily rhyme, but they did tend to make a complete and closed syntactic unit which, in and of itself, made complete sense. This is important because this is just the feature which the Restoration Poets like Dryden and Pope, valued above and beyond any other feature of the heroic couplet; and this is precisely what open heroic couplets don’t do. Open Heroic Couplets are, in a sense, an English bastardization of the Latin poetry which initially inspired the form’s rennaisance in the 1590s. The works of Marlowe, Done, Jonson and others were seen as a bastardization.

For their part, the Restoration poets brought a white-hot formality to Closed Heroic Couplets, more closely imitating the spirit of the Latin distich. At no other time in history, to my knowledge, was poetry subject to such a rigorous and complex formality. Dryden  made “definitive use of the caesura in the second and fourth lines” (Princeton p. 523) in addition to emphasizing the couplet and end-of-couplet rhyme with its own caesura. Within the couplet, a whole array of rhetorical grammatical figures were wielded for the sake of balance and elegance: anadiplosis, zeugma, syllepsis, antimetabole, polyptoton, etc…

Here are a couple of examples by the Restoration’s greatest poets:

John DrydenDryden: One Happy Moment

O, no, poor suff’ring Heart, no Change endeavour,
Choose to sustain the smart, rather than leave her;
My ravish’d eyes behold such charms about her,
I can die with her, but not live without her:

One tender Sigh of hers to see me languish,
Will more than pay the price of my past anguish:
Beware, O cruel Fair, how you smile on me,
‘Twas a kind look of yours that has undone me.

Love has in store for me one happy minute,
And She will end my pain who did begin it;
Then no day void of bliss, or pleasure leaving,
Ages shall slide away without perceiving:

Cupid shall guard the door the more to please us,
And keep out Time and Death, when they would seize us:
Time and Death shall depart, and say in flying,
Love has found out a way to live, by dying.

Maybe in some later posts I’ll give these a line by line analysis. For now, just a couple of features worth noting. Notice how all of the end-of-couplet rhymes are end-stopped. Notice, besides that, how all of the lines are end-stopped. Compare this to Thomas Middleton’s Verse of just a generation or so before. They make Middleton look like an Allen Ginsberg. Notice also, especially with Dryden, how you can extract any one of his couplets and they will more or less make a complete syntactical unit.

One tender Sigh of hers to see me languish,
Will more than pay the price of my past anguish:

The verse is regular Iambic Pentameter with some variant, trochaic first feet. Don’t be fooled by the following line, which some might read as follows:

I can die |with her,|| but not live | without her:

Here’s how Dryden means us to read it:

I can | die with | her, but | not live | without her:

When reading poetry, especially, from this period, always try to read with the meter.

The last thing to notice about Dryden’s poem is that, despite the tightly laced poetry, this poem is about sex, sex, sex. The meter itself! Every single line ending is a feminine ending – a sort of metrical double entendre. Every rhyme of the poem is a feminine rhyme (otherwise known as a multiple rhyme) – en-deavor/leave her; please us/seize us.  It is chalk full of pornographic double-entendres. Don’t be fooled by the straight-laced formality of the poetry from this period. Some of the most depraved, erotic and sexual poetry ever written comes from this period.

As an aside: when the Restoration poets did try to write in a form other than Heroic Couplets, as in blank verse, they couldn’t shake (what had become) an instinctive habit of thought. Their habit of writing closed syntactic  ideas every two lines continues to show up in their blank verse like faint shadows ; giving to their blank verse the feeling that it proceeded two lines at a time. For more on this, and Dryden especially, take a look at my post on All for Love & The Modern Formalists.

Alexander Pope

Pope: An Essay on Criticism, 1709

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th’ eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last:
The growing labours of the lengthened way,
Th’ increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

Pope, as compared to Dryden, preferred a poetry that was less public, more social and personal. You might not think so given these samples, but they’re only two samples. Pope’s poetry, for that reason, is perhaps more approachable than Dryden’s. If you’re going to read any poem from in Closed Heroic Couplets, my advice would be to read The Rape of the Lock.

Here’s the story behind the poem as given in the Twickenham Edition of Pope’s poem:

The families concerned in the Rape of the Lock–the Fermors, Petres, and Carylls–were prominent members of that group of great intermarried Roman Catholic families owning land in the home counties, most of whom came within the circle of Pope’s friends and acquaintances and to whom Pope considered his own family to belong. Some time before 21 March, 1712, when Pope sold his poem to Lintott, Robert, Lord Petre had cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair, and John Caryll had suggested to Pope that he should write a poem to heal the estrangement that followed between the two families:

The stealing of Miss Belle Fermor’s hair, was taken too seriously, and caused an estrangement between the two families, though they had lived so long in great friendship before. A common acquaintance and well-wisher to both, desired me to write a poem to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again. It was with this view that I wrote the Rape of the Lock.

The incident behind the poem has never been authoritatively tracked down to place and time. It is improbable, but possible, that it happened, as the poem states, at Hampton Court; and the counter-claims of the houses of the Fermors, Petres, or Carylls have never been substantiated.” (Twickenham, Vol II, p. 83)

Was Belinda, as the poem hints, willing to marry the Baron? “Arabella may well have been considered as the possible bride for Lord Petre. The rape of the lock may well have been an incident in the period of circumspection–how thorough such circumspection was likely to be may be gathered from the correspondence of Caryll during 1710-11 when he was choosing a wife for his son. If two such families who ‘had lived so long in friendship before’ are estranged through a fairly trivial incident, it seems there is thunder in the air. All the fun of the poem read very differently when, less than two months before the poem was published, Lord Petre married Catherine Warmsley, a Lancashire heiress some seven or more years younger than Arabella and much richer.”

On Hegemony

Curious to see what other online writers had written on the subject, I ran across the following site – The Heroic Couplet: Its Rhyme and Reason by J. Paul Hunter. His take on the form is a dense, sort of socio-political/socio-aesthetic examination. It’s worth reading if you enjoy this kind of criticism. He makes one assertion that is both true and untrue.

If forms can be hegemonic–and all but prevent meaningful departures–the couplet was such a form; never has any single poetic form before or since dominated the English language (or any other language I know about) so insistently and so thoroughly.

Closed heroic couplets were hegemonic and dominated poetic practice for many decades. However, to say that no other single poetic form before or since has so dominated the English language is to curiously ignore or exclude free-verse. The poets of the heroic couplet could only in their faintest dreams conjure up the triumphant ubiquity and hegemony of free verse! If any age of poetry compared to the Restoration, this is it.

Write (G)reatly!

2 responses

  1. Pingback: What is: Iambic Pentameter & Chaucer « PoemShape

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