Couplets are easy to come by for the poetry lover, because he or she is familiar with the use and placement of such literary devices. For those who are not as involved with literature, breaking the word down helps to uncover the meaning.
See the word couple in “couplet?” That is at least part of what a couplet is: a couple of lines. However, to the untrained eye, distinguishing a couplet from merely a couple of lines can be difficult.
Couplets generally appear in poetry, and quite frequently they rhyme and have the same meter. The two lines often belong together, and share some sort of similar idea.
Couplets in William Shakespeare
Perhaps the best place to start when looking for couplets is with the famous couplets from Shakespeare. He often ended his sonnets with a rhyming couplet that summed up the main ideas of the poem.
Some examples of couplets in the endings of his sonnets are:
“Blessed are you whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph; being lacked, to hope.” – Sonnet 52
“So, till the judgement that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.” – Sonnet 55
“Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.” – Sonnet 66
“You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.” – Sonnet 81
“How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow,
If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!” – Sonnet 93
Even without having read the rest of these sonnets, a reader can make some educated guesses about the content of the poem based on the couplets alone.
Couplets in Alexander Pope
Shakespeare isn’t the only writer from a bygone era who embraced the use of the couplet. Alexander Pope, an English writer and poet who lived from 1688-1744, was famous for his satirical verse and use of couplets.
Here are some examples from his works:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” – An Essay on Criticism
“Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” – An Essay on Criticism
“Be thou the first true merit to befriend;
His praise is lost, who stays till all commend.” – An Essay on Criticism
“Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive, divine.” – An Essay on Criticism
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest.” – An Essay on Man
“’Tis education forms the common mind,
Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.” – Epistles to Several Persons
Couplets in Literature
There are plenty of other couplets in classic literature too. Take this example from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer:
“Singing he was, or fluting all the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May.”
Some modern poets and writers use couplets as well. For instance, Shel Silverstein, a writer of poems for children, included some great examples of couplets:
“I have the measles and the mumps,
a gash, a rash and purple bumps.” – Sick”So pardon the wild crazy thing I just said– I’m just not the same since there’s rain in my head.” – Rain
There are an innumerable amount of couplet examples floating around in the world of literature. Here are a few more to further illustrate what a couplet is:
“Whether or not we find what we are seeking
is idle, biologically speaking.” – I Shall Forget You Presently, My dear, Edna St Vincent Millay
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!” – nursery rhyme
“So precious are true friends who lend their ears
and give their time to wipe away sad tears.” – Grief, Joy Saunders
“…Nodding perfume. In my garden birds sing,
Roses bloom, and I am remembering.” – Remembering, Josie Falla
“I do not like green eggs and ham
I do not like them Sam I am.” – Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss
“The strangest strange stranger I’ve met in my life
was the man who made use of his nose as a knife.” – Slicing Salami, Denise Rodgers
Once again, even without knowing the rest of the works or anything at all about the authors, determing at least partially what the poem may be about is not extremely difficult after reading the couplets.
Purpose of the Couplet
The couplet form is a popular device in poetry. The main purpose is to make a poignant point that leaves a lasting impression with the reader. Through the use of rhyme and rhythm in the couplets, that effect is generally achieved. However, Alexander Pope parodied the form when he wrote in An Essay on Criricism:
“Where-e’er you find ‘the cooling western breeze,’
In the next line, it ‘whispers through the trees;’
In crystal streams ‘with pleasing murmurs creep,’
The readers threatened (not in vain) with ‘sleep.'”
He is poking fun at his contemporaries for overusing the couplet. Like any literary device, if the couplet is used too frequently, it loses its effect and becomes mind numbing rather than thought provoking.
YourDictionary has more examples of rhyming couplets, if you’re interested in the format.