Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How To Write Heroic Couplets

It’s February, Valentine’s, the month of luuuuuv….so let’s talk a little poetry, shall we? This week we will discuss one of my favorite forms of poetry, the heroic couplet. Heroic couplets were once the epitome of poetry. If you had to read Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales….you’ve read heroic couplets. Poets used this form not just for “regular” poetry, but for social commentaries, arguments, political dissertations…anything and everything you could think of was put into heroic couplet form. It’s name was even derived from the distinguished and lofty subject matter often contained in it’s verses. This form of poetry was immensely popular until around the late 19th century. Nowadays, it is very rarely seen, which is, in my humble opinion, a crying shame. So, what are heroic couplets? And how on earth would you go about writing one?

What are they?

Simply put, a heroic couplet is a pair of rhyming lines, usually written in iambic pentameter.


1. Must have pairs of rhyming lines.
This is fairly straight forward. The rhyme scheme would be aabbccddee…In other words, your first and second lines will rhyme, the third and fourth lines will rhyme, the fifth and sixth, and so forth.

Heroic couplets have been historically used for epic poetry. They tend to be very long. But they don’t have to be. A poem can be any length.

2. The meter is usually iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter is a pattern of 5 unstressed/stressed syllable pairs.

For example, let’s look at a line from, The Author to Her Book. I will italicize the stressed syllables…

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain

As you can see, there are five stressed syllables, each followed by an unstressed syllables.

Heroic couplets are usually written in iambic pentameter, but can sometimes be written in tetrameter. Tetra = four….so this would mean that instead of each line having five stressed syllables, they would have four.

For other types of meters and an overview on how to find a poem's meter, check out my book So You Have to Write a Poem (info below).

3.Heroic couplets also allow for a caesura
A caesura is a strong pause that breaks up a line of verse in the middle of the line.

For example, another line from the same poem by Anne Bradstreet…

I washed thy face, but more defects I saw

The comma denotes where the caesura occurs.

There are other exceptions and occasional rules, as well as additions to these simple rules that modern heroic couplets have adapted, but the easiest way to spot (or write) a poem in the heroic couplet form is to have pairs of rhyming lines, written in iambic pentameter.

Heroic couplets are wonderful, beautiful, and memorable….the rhyming couplets and the rhythm of the lines are made to be remembered. Try writing your special someone a heroic couplet poem for Valentine’s Day – or try one just for fun and leave it in the comments section. I’d love to see your masterpieces!!

For more detailed examples and step-by-step instructions on how to write heroic couplets and several other forms of poetry, check out my book So You Have to Write a Poem: A Guide for the Non-Poetic!


Kate Karyus Quinn said...

I love your poetry themed month! Very romantic.

Anonymous said...

WONDERFUL...I feel transported back to my favorite college professor's English class. Thanks for this. I haven't written poetry in ... FOREVER!!! Maybe I'll give it a go

Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...

I loved reading Canterbury Tales, especially the story about the Knight ...well, you know.

But I never really grasped the how-to of writing heroic couplets and iambic pentameter. After reading your post today, I think I know why.

It's a little to much like mixing math and writing; they just don't go together in my world.

:-) Great post today!

Michelle McLean said...

LOL very good point...hmm, now that you mention it, I think this is the ONLY context that I don't mind using math in :D

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

I'm so clueless about this stuff. I am proud to be friends with someone smart enough to use the words "iambic pentameter" not just intelligently, but brilliantly! ;-)

Ooh, my word is lickyl. If you REALLY like someone, you might have to lickyl them. Hee hee.

Anonymous said...

gracias a Dios por intiresny