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What Is a Heroic Couplet?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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The heroic couplet is a poetic form composed of pairs of rhyming lines written in iambic pentameter that is often used in English narrative poems. The rhyme scheme of a heroic couplet is masculine, meaning that only one syllable from each line, usually at the end of the line, rhymes. While the precise origin of this poetic form is not known, it was often used in the 14th century by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer and later in the 17th century by English poets such as Alexander Pope. Some poets writing in heroic couplets strictly adhere to the structure and rhyme scheme while others prefer to occasionally vary the rhyme and rhythm over the course of a poem.

The meter of the heroic couplet is iambic pentameter, a form made up of five iambic feet in each line. An iambic foot is composed of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Iambic pentameter is often compared to the sound of a clock ticking or a beating heart. In the heroic couplet, these lines of iambic pentameter are paired by their rhymes and usually by content. One syllable of the first line rhymes with the corresponding syllable in the second line, and one syllable in the third line rhymes with one in the fourth, and so on.

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An example of the heroic couplet form can be found in Alexander Pope's Essay on Man: "Eye Nature's walks, shoot folly as it flies, / And catch the manners living as they rise: / Laugh where we must, be candid where we can; / But vindicate the ways of God to man." Each line is written in iambic pentameter with the appropriate series of stressed and unstressed syllables. The first two lines are paired by the final syllables in which "flies" and "rise" are rhymed while the last two lines are paired by "can" and "man." No other syllables in the pairs rhyme, so the rhyme scheme is considered to be masculine.

While the heroic couplet form is used in many different types of poetry, it is most prominent in long narrative poems, such as epics. In some cases, heroic triplets or similar patterns are mixed into the heroic couplet form or used in place of couplets. Iambic pentameter is a relatively natural speech pattern, so it is not generally difficult for a reader to read a long poem written in the heroic couplet or triplet form. Additionally, the line pairs are generally dependent only on each other in terms of structure, so there are not too many rhyme restrictions complicating the poet's narrative work.

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