ANALYZING HEROIC COUPLETS

analysing heroic coupletsOverview

Rhyming couplets have been used since Chaucer's time, but in its 200 year reign — twice that of Modernism — the heroic couplet added extra features: {1} {2} {3}

  • 1. sentence structure conforming to the metrical pattern, giving an air of neat finality.

    • Here hills and vales, the woodland and the plain,
      Here earth and water, seem to strive again;
      Not Chaos like together crush'd and bruis'd,
      But as the world, harmoniously confus'd: {4}

  • 2. lines individually balanced, usually with a pronounced caesura.

    • Made drunk with honour | and debauched with praise. {5}

  • 3. an epigrammatic neatness.

    • True wit is nature to advantage dressed —
      What oft is thought but ne'er so well expressed! {6}

  • 4. end-stopping of lines, enjambment unimportant or absent.

    • New sorrow rises as the day returns,
      A sister sickens, or a daughter mourns.
      Now kindred merit fills the sable bier,
      Now lacerated friendship claims a tear.
      Year chases year, decay pursues decay,
      Still drops some joy from withering life away; {7}

  • 5. important words stressed at the line ends.

    • Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restor'd;
      Light dies before thy uncreating word:
      Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
      And Universal Darkness buries All. {8}

  • 6. polysyllabic words, often latinized and abstract, making for brevity.

    • Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey,
      Where wealth accumulates, and men decay: {9}

To achieve point and interest, its better writers continually:

  • 7. varied the pace with foot substitution, cadence and sound patterning.

    • Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu'd, I said:
      Tie up the knocker, say I'm sick, I'm dead.
      The Dog-star rages! nay 'tis past a doubt,
      All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out:
      Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
      They rave, recite, and madden round the land; {10}

  • 8. employed triplets in place of couplets at strategic points.

    • How could she say what pleasures were around?
      But she was certain many might be found.”
      “Would she some seaport, Weymouth, Scarborough, grace?” -
      “He knew she hated every watering-place.”
      “The town?” - “What! now ’twas empty, joyless, dull?”
      “In winter?” - “No; she liked it worse when full.”
      She talk’d of building - “Would she plan a room?” -
      “No! she could live, as he desired, in gloom.”
      “Call then our friends and neighbours.” - “He might call,
      And they might come and fill his ugly hall;
      A noisy vulgar set, he knew she scorn’d them all.” {11}

  • 9. grouped the couplets into larger units.

    • A man so various that he seemed to be
      Not one but all mankind's epitome.
      Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;
      Was everything in starts and nothing long:
      But, in the course of one revolting moon,
      Was chemist, statesman, fiddler and buffoon. {5}

  • 10. employed parentheses within the couplet itself.

    • Man is a puppet, and this world a show;
      Their old dull follies, old dull fools pursue,
      And vice in nothing, but in mode, is new;
      He ---- a lord (now fair befall that pride,
      He lived a villain, but a lord he died) {12}

  • 11. varied the placing of the caesura.

    • Business or vain amusement, | care or mirth,
      Divide the frail | inhabitants of earth.
      Is duty a mere sport, | or an employ?
      Life an entrusted talent, | or a toy?
      Is there, | as reason, conscience, scripture, say,
      Cause to provide | for a great future day,
      When, | earth's assigned duration at an end,
      Men shall be summon'd | and the dead attend? {13}

  • 12. made lines with only three or four effective stresses by letting the ictus fall on unimportant words.

    • The trumpet — will it sound? the curtain rise? (5)
      And show th'august tribunal of the skies, (4)
      When no prevarication shall avail, (4)
      Where eloquence and artifice shall fail, (3)
      The pride of arrogant distinctions fall, (4)
      And conscience and our conduct judge us all? (4) {13}

  • 13. surprised with expected words or word order.

    • Shimei,— whose youth did early promise bring
      Of zeal to God, and hatred to his king,—
      Did wisely from expensive sins refrain,
      And never broke the Sabbath but for gain: {5}

William Cooper was wrong when he said these skills:

Made poetry a mere mechanic art
And ev'ry warbler has his tune by heart. {14}

In fact they made a compact, content-rich verse capable of taking a high polish without losing the personal touch, sometimes able to 'snatch a grace beyond the reach of art'. {15}

Styles

Among William Cowper's descriptions of scenery is this piece of blank verse: quiet, meditative, acutely perceived: {16}

A Winter Walk at Noon

No noise is here, or none that hinders thought:
The redbreast warbles still, but is content
With slender notes and more than half suppressed.
Pleased with his solitude, and flitting light
From spray to spray, where’er he rests he shakes
From many a twig the pendant drops of ice,
That tinkle in the withered leaves below.
Stillness, accompanied with sounds so soft,
Charms more than silence. Meditation here
May think down hours to moments. Here the heart
May give an useful lesson to the head,
And learning wiser grow without his books.

From A Winter Walk at Noon by William Cowper

Clearly different is Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock: witty, minutely polished and glittering with the rhetorician's art: {17}

The Rape of Lock

Sol thro' white curtains shot a tim'rous ray,
And op'd those eyes that must eclipse the day;
Now lap-dogs give themselves the rousing shake,
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake:
Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knock'd the ground,
And the press'd watch return'd a silver sound.
Belinda still her downy pillow press'd,
Her guardian sylph prolong'd the balmy rest:
'Twas he had summon'd to her silent bed
The morning dream that hover'd o'er her head;
A youth more glitt'ring than a birthnight beau,
(That ev'n in slumber caus'd her cheek to glow)
Seem'd to her ear his winning lips to lay,
And thus in whispers said, or seem'd to say.
"Fairest of mortals, thou distinguish'd care
Of thousand bright inhabitants of air!
If e'er one vision touch'd thy infant thought,
Of all the nurse and all the priest have taught,
Of airy elves by moonlight shadows seen,
The silver token, and the circled green,
Or virgins visited by angel pow'rs,
With golden crowns and wreaths of heav'nly flow'rs,
Hear and believe! thy own importance know,
Nor bound thy narrow views to things below.
Some secret truths from learned pride conceal'd,
To maids alone and children are reveal'd:

From Rape of the Lock, Canto I by Alexander Pope

The task is to rewrite the Cowper passage in the style of Pope. Whatever for? Because the exercise will:

  • help us appreciate the merits of both.

  • show why the heroic couplet was gradually dropped by Romantic poets.

  • teach techniques still useful in contemporary verse.

  • help us develop styles needed to translate Racine and French classical verse.

First Draft

As the skills displayed by either passage would take many pages to describe, let's plunge straight into the rewriting, pausing later to analyze results. The first rewriting is for the rhymes, the aa bb cc of heroic verse. We do that quickly, aiming for a minimum of change:

No noise is here, or none that hinders thought.
The redbreast warbles still but holds a court
In slender notes and more than half suppressed:
Pleased with his solitude, he flits to rest
Lightly from spray to spray: the shakes entice
Down from twigs the pendant drops of ice,
To tinkle in the withered leaves below.
Stillness accompanied by sounds so low
Charms more than silence. Meditation's part
Is hours thought down to moments. Here the heart
May give a useful lesson to the head
And learning be the wiser left unread.

No: content is hardly improved with holds a court, entice, so low, Meditation's part. The original was better observed and expressed. More rearrangement is needed:

What noise is here but inwardly has lent
Notes to the redbreast warbling, still content
With slender pipings more than half suppressed.
Pleased with his solitude, he flits to rest
Lightly from spray to spray and at each stop
Shakes down from twigs each icy pendant drop
To tinkle in the withered leaves below.
Silence, accompanied with sounds, must go
From softness into stillness. Meditation here
May think down hours to moments, and endear
All that the heart has learnt from reason's looks,
And reading grow the wiser less its books.

When we escape some of the previous nonsense, but at a cost. Compare.

Shakes down from twigs each icy pendant drop

With:

From many a twig the pendant drops of ice,


The first is heavy, with its alliteration in d, and the compressed phrase icy pendant drop. The second skips along with its light assonance in o and e, the i of twig completed with i of ice, and the unattractive twig suppressed by being preceded by two unstressed syllables.

And there is a much higher price in terms of what Pope would have accepted. First the enjambment, the flow of sense from one line to the next:

What noise is here but inwardly has lent
Notes to the redbreast warbling, still content
With slender pipings more than half suppressed.

Pleased with his solitude, he flits to rest
Lightly from spray to spray and at each stop
Shakes down from twigs each icy pendant drop
To tinkle in the withered leaves below.

Silence, accompanied with sounds, must go
From softness into stillness. Meditation here
May think down hours to moments, and endear
All that the heart has learnt from reason's looks,

And reading grow the wiser less its books.

Very few of the lines have an end-stopped finality. Still less is the caesura placed as Pope would have wished (numbers give the number of syllables before the caesura):

1. What noise is here | but inwardly has lent   4
2. Notes to the redbreast warbling | still content   7
3. With slender pipings | more than half suppressed.   5
4. Pleased with his solitude | he flits to rest   6
5. Lightly from spray to spray | and at each stop   6
6. Shakes down from twigs | each icy pendant drop   4
7. To tinkle in | the withered leaves below.   4
8. Silence | accompanied with sounds must go   2
9. From softness into stillness | Meditation here   6
10. May think down hours to moments | and endear   7
11. All that the heart has learnt | from reason's looks,   6
12. And reading grow the wiser | less its books.   6

Pope's preferences have reason. To take the phrasing of the first few lines of our Rape of the Lock snippet:

1. Sol thro' white curtains | shot a tim'rous ray,   5
2. And op'd those eyes | that must eclipse the day;   4
3. Now lapdogs give themselves | the rousing shake,   6
4. And sleepless lovers | just at twelve, awake:   5
5. Thrice rung the bell | the slipper knock'd the ground,   4
6. And the press'd watch | return'd a silver sound.   4

we note not only how medial is the caesura, but that it divides the line into units where additional effects are possible. In all these lines there is a parallelism, plus:

1. sly humour with tim'rous (not to wake Belinda)
2. homage of exaggeration
3. contrast of lapdogs with rousing
4. more sly humour with sleepless and twelve
5. imperiousness of Thrice rung the bell mocked with slipper
6. tinkling intimacy of press'd followed by silver sound.

Note also how lines 3 and 4 are grouped (lovers are also kept animals), as are lines 5 and 6 (a comment on 'upstairs and downstairs' life). This is Pope in his early mastery, affectionately commenting on society's foibles.

These effects are more limited in our rendering, occurring only in lines 1, 3, 6, 11 and 12, where have left ourselves segments of a decent size. Cowper by contrast — who also wrote excellent heroic couplets — doesn't make this mistake, even in his blank verse:

1. No noise is here | or none that hinders thought: 4
2. The redbreast warbles still | but is content 6
3. With slender notes | and more than half suppressed. 4
4. Pleased with his solitude | and flitting light 7
5. From spray to spray | where’er he rests he shakes 4
6. From many a twig | the pendant drops of ice, 6
7. That tinkle in | the withered leaves below. 4
8. Stillness | accompanied with sounds so soft, 2
9. Charms more than silence | Meditation here 5
10. May think down hours to moments | Here the heart 7
11. May give an useful lesson | to the head, 7
12. And learning wiser grow | without his books. 5

His caesura placings (as generally in his heroic couplets) have a wider range than Pope's, but still allow some additional effects in all lines except 7. Pope's verse improves even further once the sylphs appear, as should be clear on reading further in our snippet, but it's now time to try again.

Second Rendering

We want more work done by the individual segments: parallelism or antithesis. So:

1. No noise is here | but what the sense has lent   4
2. To winter's solitude | and deep content.   6
3. The warbling redbreast | seems now overdressed   5
4. But in his flight | from pendant spray to rest,   4
5. Makes each alighting | but a sift of snow,  4
6. With icicles to tinkle | on the ground below   6
7. Thin-matted now in leaves. | Each flurry here   6
8. Extracts from stillness | what the straining ear   5
9. Can hardly reach in thought. | The hours that pass   6
10. Compressed to moments | in the frosted glass   4
11. Of season's fashion | are fair nature's art   5
12. To teach a humbling lesson | to the heart.   7

The concluding couplet is neat, but overdressed and nature personified as a fashionable creature? And note how weak is Thin-matted now in leaves: it's not the matting that Cowper is concerned with, but the quietness that allows us to hear the icicles falling on the matted leaves. We have also lost the effective Meditation here / May think down hours to moments.

If we now look at an early piece of Pope's, Windsor Forest {18} we see, first, how much stricter is the verse: heavily end-stopped, no sentences ending mid-line:

Thou too, great father | of the British floods!
With joyful pride | survey'st our lofty woods;
Where tow'ring oaks | their spreading honours rear,
And future navies | on thy shores appear.
Not Neptune's self | from all his streams receives
A wealthier tribute, | than to thine he gives.
No seas so rich, | so gay no banks appear,
No lake so gentle, | and no spring so clear.
Not fabled Po | more swells the poet's lays,
While thro' the skies | his shining current strays,
Than thine, which visits | Windsor's fam'd abodes,
To grace the mansion | of our earthly Gods:
Nor all his stars | a brighter lustre show,
Than the fair nymphs | that grace thy side below:
Here Jove himself, | subdu'd by beauty still,
Might change Olympus | for a nobler hill.

And, second, that he is not interested in nature per se, but in what nature can teach us by example or analogy. Windsor Forest is the prop on which to hang various flattering comparisons of Britain with a classical world that was real to his contemporaries. Rich seas, clear springs, gentle lakes — the epithets were rather conventional, though the reference was wide, and meaning could be compressed into lines of epigrammatic clarity.

Third Rendering

So, moving the caesura in a more central position, and playing off the segments more, we get something a little closer to Pope — though still without that glittering polish:

1. No noise is here | but what the sense has lent   4
2. To winter's solitude | and deep content.   6
3. The redbreast's warbles here | are half suppressed   6
4. That in his flight | from pendant rest to rest,   4
5. Turns each alighting | to a sift of snow  5
6. With icicles tinkling | on dead leaves below.   6
7. The sounds once gathered | into softness here  5
8. Charm more than silence, | and the listening ear   5
9. Slow meditating | through the hours that pass 5
10. Shrinks all to moments | and the reading glass 5
11. Extracts from stillness | what is nature's art 5
12. To take a humbling lesson | to the heart. 7

 

Shift to Romanticism

Windsor Forest is a little grandiose for our taste, and was certainly not the means to explore what interested the Romantics, who did not not wish to be precise, deal in public verities, or debate on the political circuit. Their solutions were to:

1. Remove rhyme altogether and write blank verse. Though that was easy enough for Cowper after a long apprenticeship in heroic couplets, he had to do more than suppress the rhymes. If, for example, we rewrite our Rape of the Lock snippet by changing alternate rhyme words:

Sol thro' white curtains sent his tim'rous light,
And op'd those eyes that must eclipse the day;
Now lapdogs give themselves the rousing stretch,
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake:
Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knock'd the ground,
And the press'd watch return'd its silvered note.
Still on her downy pillow Belinda lay,
Her guardian sylph prolong'd the balmy rest:
'Twas he had summon'd to her silent thought
The morning dream that hover'd o'er her head;
A youth more glitt'ring than a birthnight beau,
(That ev'n in slumber fanned her cheek aflame)
Seem'd to her ear his winning words to pour,
And thus in whispers said, or seem'd to say.
"Fairest of mortals, thou distinguish'd hope
Of thousand bright inhabitants of air!
If e'er one vision touch'd thy infant care,
Of all the nurse and all the priest have taught,
Of airy elves by moonlight shadows seen,
The silver token, and the circled lawn,
Or virgins visited by angel pow'rs,
With wreathes of heav'nly flow'rs and golden crowns,
Hear and believe! thine own importance hold,
Nor bound thy narrow views to things below.
Some secret truths from learned pride withheld,
To maids alone and children are reveal'd:

we see how much of the original charm and humour is lost: the words not only rhymed, but were exquisitely exact.

2. Reduce the importance of rhyme by:

  • making the lines more run-on

    • I wander thro' each charter'd street,
      Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
      And mark in every face I meet
      Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

      In every cry of every Man,
      In every Infant's cry of fear,
      In every voice, in every ban,
      The mind-forg'd manacles I hear. {19}

  • mixing masculine and feminine rhymes

    • Young companies nimbly began dancing
      To the swift treble pipe, and humming string.
      Aye, those fair living forms swam heavenly
      To tunes forgotten — out of memory: {20}

  • making it a decorative feature, a pleasing echo only

    • A ship is floating in the harbour now,
      A wind is hovering o'er the mountain's brow;
      There is a path on the sea's azure floor,
      No keel has ever plough'd that path before;
      The halcyons brood around the foamless isles;
      The treacherous Ocean has forsworn its wiles; {21}

'Loose versification and Cockney rhymes' were what contemporaries called these early attempts.

3. Shade the meaning of words by employing unusual epithets, nouns and then whole clauses that drew on increasingly vague, personal and private reference: a strategy that led from Romanticism to Symbolism and finally to Modernism and Postmodernism.

Allusion was also a strategy of Pope's in drawing on the verse of Dryden and Milton, {22} but Augustan verse is public verse, and the reference was clearer.

Modern Examples

No one is today writing heroic couplets in the manner of Pope or Dryden, except in affectionate pastiche, as in this example by A.D. Hope: {23}

Dunciad Minor

Now Muse assist me, aptly to describe
Mechanic contests of the Critic tribe;
Choose but condign exemplars for my song,
Lest, like themselves, I explicate too long;
Let me shed light on things both dark and dense
Yet never move them into common sense.

First of the few for whom the Muse finds space,
See Wilson Knight adance and take his place.
A Double Boiler fixed on fiery wheels,
Hisses hysteric or ecstatic squeals;
He takes a play, The Tempest, from his poke,
Kisses the boards and drops it in the smoke.
The smoke redoubles and the cauldron roars;
At length he turns a cock and out there pours
The play - Ah, no! it cannot be the play
To myth and symbolism boiled away;
Where the plot, the actors and the stage?

From Dunciad Minor, Book V by A. D. Hope

but certain aspects continue in twentieth-century poetry. Donald Davie, an admirer of Augustan verse, could achieve an easy delivery with end-stopped lines by varying the pace and enjambment: {24}

Remembering the 'Thirties

Hearing one saga, we enact the next.
We please our elders when we sit enthralled;
But then they're puzzled; and at last they're vexed
To have their youth so avidly recalled.

It dawns upon the veterans after all
That what for them were agonies, for us
Are high-brow thrillers, though historical;
And all their feats quite strictly fabulous.

This novel written fifteen years ago,
Set in my boyhood and my boyhood home,
These poems about ""abandoned workings'', show
Worlds more remote than Ithaca or Rome.

The Anschluss, Guernica ? all the names
At which those poets thrilled or were afraid
For me mean schools and headmasters and games;
And in the process someone is betrayed.

Ourselves perhaps. The Devil for a joke
Might carve his own initials on our desk,
And yet we'd miss the point because he spoke
An idiom too dated, Audenesque.

From Remembering the 'Thirties by Donald Davie

Pace does not need to be so measured, but in A Society Wedding, Santiago de Chile, some very un-Augustan techniques have to be deployed to slow matters down to a satisfactory ending.

In general, the devices employed by the heroic couplet are still the staple of verse writing. Philip Larkin is one of the Moderns, but note the noun and epithet in this snippet from An Arundel Tomb: {25}

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

From An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin

The device is very simple here, and not continued — the metre then changing to And that faint hint of the absurd and then to the prose rhythm of The little dogs under their feet — but effective in its way: rewriting makes the lines poorer:

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their stiffened habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, proper pleat,

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

Notes and References


1. Wallace Cable Brown, The Triumph of Form: A Study of the Later Masters of the Heroic Couplet. (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1948).
2. Mark Van Doren, The Poetry of John Dryden (New York, 1931).
3. Robert K. Root, The Poetical Career of Alexander Pope (Princeton Univ. Press, 1938).
4. Windsor Forest. Alexander Pope (1688-1744). http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/windsor.html.
5. Absalom and Achitophel. John Dryden. (1631-1700). http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/absalom.html
6. An Essay on Criticism. Alexander Pope. 1711. http://web.uvic.ca/wguide/Pages/LTWit.html. Wit entry in the UVic Writer's Guide.
7. The Vanity of Human Wishes. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). http://www.web-books.com/Classics/Poetry/Anthology/Johnson_S/Vanity.htm
8. The Dunciad. Alexander Pope. http://www.satire.dk/eb.htm
9. The Deserted Village. Oliver Goldsmith (1730?-1774). http://www.bookrags.com/ebooks/3545/36.html NNA>.
10. Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. Alexander Pope.http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/39.html NNA.
11. The Other in Tales of the Hall. George Crabbe. (1754-1832). http://www.gutenberg.org/
12. Gotham, II. Charles Churchill (1731-1764). http://library.beau.org/gutenberg/etext05/7chpm10.txt
13. Retirement. William Cowper (1731-1800). http://www.ccel.org/c/cowper/works/retirement.htm
14. Table Talk. William Cowper. http://www.worldofquotes.com/topic/Poetry/1.
15. Essay on Criticism. Part I: 152. Alexander Pope. http://www.bartleby.com/100/230.html
16. The Task. William Cowper. http://www.gutenberg.org
17. Rape of the Lock. Alexander Pope. http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem1644.html NNA.
18. Windsor Forest. Alexander Pope. http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/windsor.html.
19. London. William Blake. http://www.poemhunter.com.
20. Endymion. John Keats (1795-1821). http://www.john-keats.com/gedichte/endymion_i.htm
21. Epipsychidion. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). http://www.poemhunter.com.
22. Reuben A. Brower, Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion, (Clarendon Press, 1959). Q
23. Dunciad Minor, Book V. by A. D. Hope. Marcus Bales. Apr. 2002. http://ebbs.english.vt.edu/pipermail/new-poetry/2002-April/006865.html NNA.
24. Remembering the 'Thirties. Donald Davie. http://allpoetry.com/poem/8544213-Remembering_The_Thirties-by-Donald_Davie
25. An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin http://blue.carisenda.com/archives/cat_philip_larkin.html NNA
26. Linkage.Net. Paul Hurt. March 2006. http://www.linkagenet.com/. Notes towards a new taxonomy of verse structure.

 

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