A couplet (cuhp-leht) consists of two successive poetic lines. While couplets often rhyme and share the same metrical pattern, many couplets vary in metrical structure and don’t rhyme at all. Couplets can stand alone as their own stanza, or they can occur within a larger stanza, differentiated from the surrounding lines by rhyme, grammatical structure, or a thought that links the two lines together.
The word couplet first entered English in the 1570s and referred to “two lines [of poetry] in succession, forming a pair and generally rhyming with one another.” Couplet derives from the 14th-century French couplet, which meant “two pieces of iron riveted or hinged together.”
An easy way to remember the meaning of this literary term is to think of it as being similar to the term couple: a linked pair.
Types of Couplets
There are many different types of couplets, and these are some of the most common forms.
- Alexandrine couplets: These were used primarily by French writers, although the form also became popular with German and Dutch poets. These couplets utilized two rhyming alexandrine lines, which consist of 12 syllables with a caesura in the middle of the line.
- Chinese or contrapuntal couplets: This kind of couplet is written as standalone poems that are hung around doorways as part of Chinese New Year festivities. They have a one-to-one correspondence in metrical length, and each pair of characters within the couplet must have certain corresponding properties. Sometimes, these are referred to as antithetical couplets.
- Distiches: This is a two-line poem. Distiches are often rhymed and written in formal verse but not always. The Alexander Pope poem “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog which I gave to his Royal Highness” is an example of a distich: “I am his Highness’ dog at Kew / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?”
- Elegiac couplets: Ancient Greek and Roman poetry regularly used elegiac couplets. These couplets were used in elegies and followed a metrical pattern of alternating dactylic hexameter and dactylic pentameter.
- Heroic couplets: Geoffrey Chaucer originated this form, which is the most common type of couplet in English verse. They use rhyming iambic pentameter.
- Kurals: A Tirukkural, or kural, is a standalone couplet where the first line consists of four words and the second line contains three words. These couplets must adhere to the grammar for venpa/venba, one of the most difficult and highly regarded forms of stanzaic structure in classical Tamil literature.
- Shakespearean couplets: These are the rhyming couplets that occur at the end of Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as frequently in his plays. These couplets tend to be in iambic pentameter and follow an AA rhyme scheme. In his sonnets, these final couplets signify the turn, or final summary or twist, taken by the poem. Meanwhile, in his plays, couplets tend to occur in songs sung by characters or in plays within the play, as well as at the end of acts to add additional emphasis and a sense of finality.
- Shers: A type of couplet specific to the Urdu poetic form the Ghazal, this form must contain a rhyme and a refrain. Each sher must be complete within itself rather than utilizing enjambment between the stanzas.
- Split couplets: A split couplet consists of a first line written in iambic pentameter followed by a second line written in iambic dimeter, giving them an asymmetrical rhythm.
Open vs. Closed Couplets
If a couplet has a sentence that begins in the first line and continues into the second line, this is called an open couplet or a run-on couplet. If the first line is a complete sentence, followed by a complete sentence in the second line, this is called a closed couplet or a formal couplet.
In Catherine Barnett’s “An Apprehension,” a poem about having a Qolsys home security system’s alarm go off in the middle of the night, she uses both open and closed couplets throughout.
In stanza eight, she writes:
I peered into the sensors, into the little hole
of the siren, and touched up my lipstick.
This is an open stanza, as the sentence begins in the first line and continues into the second.
However, in stanza 18, she writes:
I shut the window.
Window closing, said Qolsys.
This is a closed couplet as each of these two lines form their own complete sentence.
Couplets and Stanza Length
There is some murkiness surrounding the term couplet since it is used for both two successive poetic lines and a stanza that consists of only two lines. Although the use to denote stanzaic length is accurate, the term exists beyond it. So, while all two-line stanzas will always be considered couplets, couplets can also be seen within a larger stanza of any length.
There are two ways to approach standalone couplets.
- Some standalone couplets form complete poems. Alexander Pope’s “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog which I gave to his Royal Highness” is a poem that consists of only two rhymed lines.
- Other standalone couplets are separate stanzas within a longer poem. In Ada Limon’s “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual,” she opens the poem by saying:
When you come, bring your brown-
ness so we can be sure to please
the funders. Will you check this
box; we’re applying for a grant.
Her poem continues for another 12 stanzas, all of which, save for the last stanza, are written as standalone couplets.
Couplets within a Stanza
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
This closing couplet is the only moment in the sonnet’s 14 lines where Shakespeare uses a consecutive (AA) rhyme. This rhyme, as well as the self-contained thought it expresses, gives a sense of weight and finality to the poem.
Why Poets Use Couplets
There are many reasons why a poet may elect to write in couplets. Standalone couplets add a pleasing visual elegance to a poem, and when also employing enjambment, they move the reader’s eyes down the page and assist with pacing. Whether standalone or incorporated into larger stanzas, couplets can amplify imagery or contribute to a poem’s musicality through patterns of meter, rhythm and rhyme.
Couplets can also add emphasis, particularly if used as the last two lines of the poem. Thematically, a poet may wish to employ couplets if writing about romantic love, the love of a parent for a child, a close friendship, or any other paired relationship.
Examples of Couplets in Literature
1. Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”
Pound’s famous Imagist poem reads, in its entirety, as follows:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
This open couplet is a distich, a poem consisting only of two lines. Pound’s aim with this poem was to create a strong image without any additional descriptions or distractions.
2. Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”
Brooks’s famous poem is written entirely in open couplets. She opens with these lines:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
The poem utilizes enjambment of the repeated word We to bring the reader into the next line. In the final line of the poem’s final couplet, the We is missing, emphasizing the impending deaths of the collective We character.
3. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
In the “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer establishes the pattern of heroic couplets, which he will follow throughout the rest of the book. He begins:
What that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which virtue engendred is the flour
These heroic couplets are written in rhyming iambic pentameter—don’t forget that English has changed in spelling and pronunciation since Chaucer’s time!
4. Agha Shahid Ali, “In Arabic”
The late poet Agha Shahid Ali is responsible for popularizing the Ghazal form of his native Kashmir with American poets. In 2001, he published a book of ghazals, Call Me Ishmael Tonight, from which this poem is taken. Ali writes:
A language of loss? I have some business in Arabic.
Love letters: a calligraphy pitiless in Arabic.
At an exhibit of miniatures, what Kashmiri hairs!
Each paisley inked into a golden tress in Arabic.
This much fuss about a language I didn’t know? So one day
perfume from a dress may let you digress in Arabic.
In these opening stanzas, the ghazal form is perfectly executed, as it contains both the required internal rhyme (business and pitiless, tress and dress) as well as the refrain (in Arabic) that the sher ghazal couplet requires. Ali varies between closed and open couplets in this poem, although each sher is—as the form demands—separate from its companions.
Further Resources on Couplets
The Academy of American Poets republished an excerpt of poet Edward Hirsch’s exploration of couplets for his book A Poet’s Glossary.
Jason Schneiderman wrote an excellent post for Poetry School about how to write a ghazal, a form which requires astute use of couplets.