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The Best Couplets of All Time
Couplet Definition and Examples


Which poets wrote the best couplets of all time?

Masters of the couplet include Al-Ma'arri, Basho, William Blake, Robert Burns, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Geoffrey Chaucer, e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Ernest Dowson, John Dryden, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, John Gower, Hafiz, Thomas Hardy, Robert Hayden, Robert Herrick, Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. E. Housman, Langston Hughes, Ben Jonson, John Keats, Omar Khayym, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Christopher Marlowe, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Milton, Ogden Nash, Wilfred Owen, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, Alexander Pope, Ezra Pound, Sir Walter Raleigh, Rumi, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edmund Spenser, Wallace Stevens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Wordsworth, Thomas Wyatt, Elinor Wylie and William Butler Yeats.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Let's begin our investigation of the best couplets in the English language with some quick definitions and sterling examples ...

Couplet Definition: Two lines of poetic verse, usually but not always in the same meter and of about the same length, which are often (but not always) connected by rhyme and form a unit (i.e., that go together and/or stand alone).

While poems can consist entirely of couplets, couplets can also be employed within more complex poetic forms such as the sonnet and villanelle. This page contains examples of famous sonnets (such as those of Shakespeare) and villanelles (such as those of Dylan Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop) which incorporate couplets. These examples clearly explain and show how the forms conclude with couplets.

Couplets do not have to rhyme ...

Lightning shatters the darkness:
the night heron's shriek.
―Matsuo Basho, translation by Michael R. Burch

... but in formal/traditional English poetry they usually do ...

Rhymed Couplet Examples

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night ...
William Blake, "The Tyger"

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
William Shakespeare, "Macbeth"

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
―attributed to Plato, translation by Michael R. Burch

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gulls in their high, lonely circuits may tell.
―Glaucus, translation by Michael R. Burch

Here he lies in state tonight: great is his Monument!
Yet Ares cares not, neither does War relent.
―Anacreon, translation by Michael R. Burch

Blame not the gale, nor the inhospitable sea-gulf, nor friends’ tardiness,
mariner! Just man’s foolhardiness.
―Leonidas of Tarentum, translation by Michael R. Burch

Closed Couplet Definition: Two end-stopped lines of verse which form a complete "bounded" thought that is logically or grammatically complete, such as a sentence or independent clause. A closed couplet can stand apart from the rest of the poem it appears in. As we will see in the following examples, many closed couplets rhyme and some constitute complete poems ...

Complete Poem Rhymed Couplets

These rhymed couplets form complete poems:

Forgive, O Lord

by Robert Frost

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I'll forgive the great big one on me.

Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness
by Alexander Pope

I am his highness's dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

Alexander Pope, a poet famous for his satires such as The Dunciad and The Rape of the Lock, wrote this epigram in the 1730s and had it engraved on the collar of one of his puppies, which he gave to Frederick, Prince of Wales.

The Cow
by Ogden Nash

The cow is of the bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other, milk.

Poets
by Ogden Nash

Poets aren't very useful
Because they aren't consumeful or produceful.

Styx
by Michael R. Burch

Black waters, deep and dark and still . . .
all men have passed this way, or will.

I wrote the poem above as a teenager in high school. The lines started out as part of a longer poem, but I thought these were the two best lines and decided to let them stand alone on the principle that "discretion is the better part of valor."

Heroic Couplet Definition: When rhyming couplets are written in iambic pentameter they are called "heroic couplets" or "heroic verse." Especially a stanza consisting of two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter which form a rhetorical unit and are written in an elevated style, as in the poems of Geoffrey Chaucer and Alexander Pope. Entire longer poems have been written in heroic couplets, such as Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and Pope's "The Rape of the Lock," "Essay on Man" and "Essay on Criticism."

Heroic Couplet Example

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.
―Alexander Pope

Less Heroic Couplets

Less Heroic Couplet Definition and History: In an attempt to demonstrate that all couplets need not be heroic, I have created a new poetic form called the “Less Heroic Couplet.” I believe poets should abide by truth-in-advertising laws, even in their nonsense verse! The rules for the form are simple and flexible: light verse written in rhyming or near-rhyming couplets, in any meter, with the goal of making readers wince or giggle. Nonsense is preferred, of the wiser variety. Extra gold stars are awarded for poems about cowardice, not being especially honorable, laying about or lying about, and/or shirking one’s duty. Tercets are allowed since lines one and two form a rhyming couplet, as do lines two and three, and so on. "Coupleted" titles such as in my poems "Sex Hex" and "Bed Head" are encouraged but not required. I am dedicating the form to my friend and fellow poet Richard Thomas Moore. Here are some examples:

Less Heroic Couplets: Murder Most Fowl!
by Michael R. Burch

for and after Richard Thomas Moore

“Murder most foul!”
cried the mouse to the owl.

“Friend, I’m no sinner;
you’re merely my dinner!”

the wise owl replied
as the tasty snack died.

Originally published by Lighten Up Online then in Potcake Chapbook #7

Less Heroic Couplets: Generation Gap
by Michael R. Burch

A quahog clam, age 405,
said, “Hey, it’s great to be alive!”

I disagreed, not feeling nifty,
babe though I am, just pushing fifty.

A quahog clam found off the coast of Ireland is the longest-lived animal on record, at an estimated age of 405 years.


Less Heroic Couplets: Meal Deal

by Michael R. Burch

for and after Richard Thomas Moore

Love is a splendid ideal ...
at least till it costs us a meal.

Less Heroic Couplets: Bed Head
by Michael R. Burch

for and after Richard Thomas Moore

“Early to bed, early to rise”
makes a man wish some men weren’t so wise
(or at least had the decency to tell pleasing lies).

Less Heroic Couplets: Sex Hex
by Michael R. Burch

for and after Richard Thomas Moore

Love’s full of cute paradoxes
(and highly acute poxes).

Published by Asses of Parnassus, Lighten Up Online and Poem Today

Less Heroic Couplets: Sweet Tarts
by Michael R. Burch

Love, beautiful but fatal to many bewildered hearts,
commands us to be faithful, then tempts us with sweets and tarts.

Less Heroic Couplets: Marketing 101
by Michael R. Burch

Building her brand, she disrobes,
naked, except for her earlobes.

The are more "less heroic couplets" at the bottom of this page.

Blank Verse Couplet Definition: Two lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter used, for example, toward the end of speeches in Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine.

Blank Verse Couplet Example

And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.
―Christopher Marlowe

Unrhymed Couplet Definition: Two lines of poetic verse, usually either blank verse or free verse, that form a unit but do not rhyme.

Unrhymed Couplet Example

... you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you ...
e. e. cummings

Free Verse Couplet Definition: In free verse almost anything goes, so a free verse couplet may be any two lines of poetry that form a rhetorical unit, but would normally be non-metrical and unrhymed.

Unrhymed Free Verse Couplet Examples

In A Station Of The Metro
by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume ...
Walt Whitman

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
Pablo Neruda

Love calls, everywhere and always.
We're sky bound. Are you coming?
Rumi

Chinese Couplet Definition: Chinese couplets have two lines with the same metrical length; the two lines must be contextually related. Furthermore, the pattern of tones in the first line must be inverted in the second line. Thus, Chinese couplets are similar to the chiasmus.  

Chinese Couplet Example

Sea wide allows fish to jump
Sky high enables birds to fly

Additional Notes

Elegiac Couplet Definition: One hexameter line with six poetic feet, followed by one pentameter line with five poetic feet.

Open Couplet Definition: A couplet that cannot stand on its own as a complete thought and thus "depends" on other parts of the poem in which it appears.

Shakespearean sonnets end with a couplet whereas some other sonnet forms do not.

When multiple rhymed couplets appear in a poem they typically have the rhyme scheme AA BB CC DD etc.

Haiku and Haiku-Like Poems Recast as Couplets

Lightning shatters the darkness:
the night heron's shriek.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

An ancient pond, the frog leaps:
the silver plop and gurgle of water.
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

In a misty rain a butterfly is riding
the tail of a cow.
Richard Wright

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains, uprooting oaks.
Sappho of Lesbos, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sappho is the first great lyric that poet that we know by name today. The term "lyric" derives from the lyre, a harp-like musical instrument. Sappho is thus the original singer-songwriter, and the artistic mother not only of lyric poets like Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, but also of singer-songwriters like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Sam Cooke and Carole King. Basho is one of the world's greatest poets, in my opinion. Richard Wright was one of the better Western poets to write haiku.

Villanelles

The Villanelle is a unique form in which two lines repeat, either in whole or in part, until they combine to form a closing couplet. To make the repetition easier to see, the repeating lines have been italicized below.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Traditional Sonnets

The traditional English sonnet typically ends with a rhymed couplet that "wraps things up." The most common English forms of the sonnet are the Spenserian sonnet (rhyme scheme abab bcbc cdcd ee), the Shakespearean sonnet (rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg) and the Petrarchan sonnet (rhyme scheme abba abba cdecde), although there are other variations.

Shakespearean Sonnets (rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg)

Sonnet 147: My Love is as a Fever
by William Shakespeare

My love is as a fever, longing still [a]
For that which longer nurseth the disease, [b]
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, [a]
The uncertain sickly appetite to please. [b]
My reason, the physician to my love, [c]
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept, [d]
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve [c]
Desire is death, which physic did except. [d]
Past cure I am, now reason is past care, [e]
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest. [f]
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are, [e]
At random from the truth vainly expressed, [f]
   For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, [g]
   Who art as black as Hell, as dark as night. [g]

For more examples of the use of couplets in sonnets, please click here: Examples of Couplets in Sonnets.

Blank Verse Sonnets and Free Verse Sonnets

A blank verse sonnet abandons rhyme but maintains iambic meter (ta TUM ta TUM ta TUM etc.) perhaps with some degree of metrical variation, while a free verse sonnet does not employ regular meter.

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Longer Poems with Strong Closing Couplets

A couplet can be used to end a longer poem that may, or may not, be written in couplets.

Wulf and Eadwacer (anonymous Anglo-Saxon ballad, circa 990 AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

My clan's curs pursue him like crippled game.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
We are so different.

Wulf's on one island; I'm on another.
His island's a fortress, fastened by fens.
Here bloodthirsty men howl for sacrifice.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
We are so different.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like panting hounds.
Whenever it rained and I sobbed, disconsolate,
huge, battle-strong arms grabbed and engulfed me.
Good feelings for him, but for me loathsome!
Wulf, oh, my Wulf! My desire for you
has made me sick; your seldom-comings
have left me famished, deprived of real meat.
Do you hear, Heaven-Watcher? A wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.

Translator's Notes: This ancient poem has been characterized as an elegy, a wild lament, a lover's lament, a passion play, a riddle, a song, or an early ballad (it may be the earliest English poem with a refrain). However, most scholars place it within the genre of the frauenlied, or woman's song. It may be the first extant poem authored by a woman in the fledgling English language; it seems likely that the poet was a woman because we don't usually think of ancient scops pretending to be women. "Wulf and Eadwacer" might also be called the first English feminist text, as the speaker seems to be challenging and mocking the man who has been raping and impregnating her. And the poem's closing metaphor of a loveless relationship being like a song in which two voices never harmonized remains one of the strongest in the English language, or any language.—Michael R. Burch

For more examples of longer poems with strong closing couplets, please click here: Longer Poems with Strong Closing Couplets.

Here are more of my "less heroic couplets" ...

Less Heroic Couplets: Fine Feathered Fiends I
by Michael R. Burch

Conformists of a feather
flock together.

The poem above was the winner of the National Poetry Month Couplet Competition.

Less Heroic Couplets: Fine Feathered Fiends II
by Michael R. Burch

Fascists of a feather
flock together.

Less Heroic Couplets: Less than Impressed
by Michael R. Burch

for T. M., regarding certain dispensers of hot lukewarm stale air

Their volume’s impressive, it’s true ...
but somehow it all seems “much ado.”

Less Heroic Couplets: Gilded Silence
by Michael R. Burch

Golden silence reigned supreme
in her nightmare and my dream.

Less Heroic Couplets: Questionable Credentials
by Michael R. Burch

Poet? Critic? Dilettante?
Do you know what’s good, or do you merely flaunt?

Less Heroic Couplets: Attention Span Gap
by Michael R. Burch

Better not to live, than live too long:
The world prefers a brief poem, a short song.

Less Heroic Couplets: Clover
by Michael R. Burch

It’ll soon be over
(clover?)

Less Heroic Couplets: Just Desserts
by Michael R. Burch

“The West Antarctic ice sheet
might not need a huge nudge
to budge.”

And if it does budge,
denialist fudge
may force us to trudge
neck-deep in sludge!

NOTE: The first stanza is a quote by paleoclimatologist Jeremy Shakun in Science magazine.

Less Heroic Couplets: Shell Game
by Michael R. Burch

I saw a turtle squirtle!
Before you ask, “How fertile?”
The squirt came from its mouth.
Why do your thoughts fly south?

Less Heroic Couplets: Harem Scare’m
by Michael R. Burch

I wanted to live like a sheik, in a harem.
But I live like a monk without gals ’cause I scare ’em.

Less Heroic Couplets: Funding Fundamentals
by Michael R. Burch

"I found out that I was a Christian for revenue only and I could not bear the thought of that, it was so ignoble." — Mark Twain

Making sense from nonsense is quite sensible! Suppose
you’re running low on moolah, need some cash to paint your toes ...
Just invent a new religion; claim it saves lost souls from hell;
have the converts write you checks; take major debit cards as well;
take MasterCard and Visa and good-as-gold Amex;
hell, lend and charge them interest, whether payday loan or flex.
Thus out of perfect nonsense, glittery ores of this great mine,
you’ll earn an easy living and your toes will truly shine!

Originally published by Lighten Up Online

Less Heroic Couplets: Lance-a-Lot
by Michael R. Burch

Preposterous bird!
Inelegant! Absurd!

Until the great & mighty heron
brandishes his fearsome sword.

Less Heroic Couplets: Fahr an’ Ice
by Michael R. Burch

with abject apologies to Robert Frost and Ogden Nash

From what I know of death, I’ll side with those
who’d like to have a say in how it goes:
just make mine cool, cool rocks (twice drowned in likker),
and real fahr off, instead of quicker.

Less Heroic Couplets: Mate Check
by Michael R. Burch

Love is an ache hearts willingly secure
then break the bank to cure.

Less Heroic Couplets: Word to the Unwise
by Michael R. Burch

I wanted to be good as gold,
but being good, as I’ve been told,
requires something, discipline,
I simply have no interest in!

Less Heroic Couplets: Negotiables
by Michael R. Burch

Love should be more than the sum of its parts—
of its potions and pills and subterranean arts.

Less Heroic Couplets: Midnight Stairclimber
by Michael R. Burch

Procreation
is at first great sweaty recreation,
then—long, long after the sex dies—
the source of endless exercise.

Less Heroic Couplets: Liquidity Crisis
by Michael R. Burch

And so I have loved you, and so I have lost,
accrued disappointment, ledgered its cost,
debited wisdom, credited pain . . .
My assets remaining are liquid again.

Less Heroic Couplets: Dark Cloud, Silver Lining
from “Love in the Time of the Coronavirus”
by Michael R. Burch

Every corona has a silver lining:
I’m too far away to hear your whining,
and despite my stormy demeanor,
my hands have never been cleaner!

Less Heroic Couplets: Mini-Ode to Stamina
by Michael R. Burch

When you’ve given so much
that I can’t bear your touch,
then from a safe distance
let me admire your persistence.

Less Heroic Couplets: Miss Bliss
by Michael R. Burch

Domestic “bliss”?
Best to swing and miss!

Less Heroic Couplets: Then and Now
by Michael R. Burch

BEFORE: Thanks to Brexit, our lives will be plush! ...
AFTER: Crap, we’re all going broke! What the hell is the rush?

Less Heroic Couplets: Passions
by Michael R. Burch

Passions are the heart’s qualms,
the soul’s squalls, the brain’s storms.

Less Heroic Couplets: Crop Duster
by Michael R. Burch

We are dust and to dust we must return ...
but why, then, life’s pointless sojourn?

Less Heroic Couplets: Shady Sadie
by Michael R. Burch

A randy young dandy named Sadie
loves sex, but her horse neighs she’s shady.

The couplet above is based on the limerick below:

Shady Sadie
by Michael R. Burch

A randy young dandy named Sadie
loves sex, but in forms fancied shady.
(I cannot, of course,
involve her poor horse,
but it’s safe to infer she’s no lady!)

Less Heroic Couplets: Self-ish
by Michael R. Burch

Let’s not pretend we “understand” other elves
As long as we remain mysteries to ourselves.

Less Heroic Couplets: Weird Beard
by Michael R. Burch

for and after Richard Thomas Moore

C’mon, admit — love’s truly weird:
why does a vagina need a beard?

Should making love produce foul poxes?
What can we make of such paradoxes?

And having made love, what the hell’s the point
of ending up with a sore, limp joint?

And who invented love, which we all pursue
like rats in a maze after sniffing glue?

Less Heroic Couplets: Baseball Explained
by Michael R. Burch

Baseball’s immeasurable spittin’
mixed with occasional hittin’.

Less Heroic Couplets: Poetry I
by Michael R. Burch

Poetry is the heart’s caged rhythm,
the soul’s frantic tappings at the panes of mortality.

Less Heroic Couplets: Poetry II
by Michael R. Burch

Poetry is the trapped soul’s frantic tappings
at the panes of mortality.

Less Heroic Couplets: Seesaw
by Michael R. Burch

A poem is the mind teetering between fact and fiction,
momentarily elevated.

Less Heroic Couplets: Dear Pleader
by Michael R. Burch

Is our Dear Pleader, as he claims, heroic?
I prefer my presidents a bit more stoic.

Less Heroic Couplets: Sure Cure
by Donald Trump
care of Michael R. Burch

To outfox the pox:
kill yourself first, with Clorox!

And since death’s the main goal,
mainline Lysol!

No vaccine?
Just chug Mr. Clean!

Is a cure out of reach?
Fumigate your lungs, with bleach!

To immunize your thorax,
destroy it with Borax!

To immunize your bride,
drown her in Opti-cide!

To end all future gridlocks,
gargle with Vaprox!

Now, quick, down the Drain-o
with old Insane-o NoBrain-o!

Related pages: Less Heroic Couplets, Dabble Dactyls, The Best Sonnets, The Best Villanelles, The Best Sestinas, The Best Rondels and Roundels, The Best Kyrielles, The Best Couplets, The Best Haiku, The Best Poem of All Time, The Best Limericks, The Best Nonsense Verse, The Best Light Verse, The Best Poems Ever Written, The Best Poets, The Best of the Masters, The Most Beautiful Poems in the English Language, The Most Popular Poems of All Time, The Best American Poetry, The Best Poetry Translations, The Best Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs, The Best Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings, The Best Old English Poetry, The Best Lyric Poetry, The Best Free Verse, The Best Story Poems, The Best Narrative Poems, The Best Epic Poems, The Best Epigrams, The Best Poems for Kids, The Most Beautiful Lines in the English Language, The Best Quatrains Ever, The Most Beautiful Sonnets in the English Language, The Best Elegies, Dirges & Laments, The Best Holocaust Poetry, The Best Hiroshima Poetry, The Best Anti-War Poetry, The Best Religious Poetry, The Best Spiritual Poetry, The Best Heretical Poetry, The Best Thanksgiving Poems, The Best Autumnal Poems, The Best Fall/Autumn Poetry, The Best Dark Poetry, The Best Halloween Poetry, The Best Supernatural Poetry, The Best Dark Christmas Poems, The Best Vampire Poetry, The Best Love Poems, The Best Urdu Love Poetry, The Best Erotic Poems, The Best Romantic Poetry, The Best Love Songs Ever, The Greatest Movies of All Time, Visions of Beauty, The Best Poems about Death and Loss, What is Poetry?, The Best Antinatalist Poems and Prose, England's Greatest Artists

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