Alexander Pope by Johnathan Richardson

The Heroic Couplet: Its Rhyme and Reason

by J. Paul Hunter

(Above: Alexander Pope, by Jonathan Richardson, British Museum.) This essay derives from a lecture presented at the National Humanities Center by J. Paul Hunter, 1995-96 Fellow and Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities and English at the University of Chicago. Editor of The Norton Introduction to Poetry and The Norton Introduction to Literature, Hunter, during an earlier residence at the Center, worked on a volume that received the 1991 Louis Gottschalk prize from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies--Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. For three years he led the Center's summer institute for high school teachers of English.

When you go to a poetry reading today, look around and discover that all the listeners are other poets, you get the idea: Poetry, for most people at the end of the twentieth century, is not the nerve-center of their universe, not their idea of where to go to sort out important political, ethical, or economic issues. You therefore might conclude that studying poetry represents historical irrelevance, intellectual indulgence, and social flight--or, at best, a sweet and restful retreat to a haven from a heartless world. I suggest otherwise. Poetry--irrepressibly, irrationally, and sometimes irresponsibly pleasurable--can be public, powerful, resonant, central to the culture it lives in, representative of its institutions and practices, and reflective of larger structures of thought and expression.

A form as seemingly alien as the heroic couplet--even its pretentious name echoes a long-lost or never-existent world--can in fact tell us something about how the world of public affairs (defined as the process of putting ideas into action) works. What happens in poems has a lot to do with what is going on in a particular society at a particular time, what forms of thought and expression poets have to work with. The way they think and argue both reflects and modifies the larger public culture, especially in times when poets see themselves as public figures and claim a voice in national issues. It may be hard to imagine now, but there have been times when poetry and poets were near the center of political experience. Plato thought poets too dangerous to be trusted, because he imagined them actually being listened to as serious commentators, rather than as, at best, language decorators who are trotted out to grace ceremonial occasions. The poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, often close to seats of power, were always writing about public matters.

For 150 years, the heroic couplet was the dominant verse form in the English language (and closely related to verse forms dominating other European languages); it prevailed for nearly a quarter of the entire English poetic tradition. Before Ben Jonson and his contemporaries, there had been couplets galore--dating back to Chaucer--and after Alexander Pope and Charles Churchill some poets continued to choose the heroic couplet as their medium. But in the century and a half between Jonson and Churchill (from the 1630s to the 1780s) the couplet covered the British and American literary landscapes like the dew and dominated poetry like a tyrant. If forms can be hegemonic--and all but prevent meaningful departures--the couplet was such a form; never has any single poetic form before or since dominated the English language (or any other language I know about) so insistently and so thoroughly. There were, of course, during this long period, many poems written in other meters, stanza forms, and rhyme schemes; every major poet experimented with other possibilities (quatrains, Spenserian stanzas, odes, rime royal), and a few poets, such as Milton, resisted almost entirely the tyranny of the form. But most serious poets assumed that if they were writing an ambitious poem, they had no other choice, and even when Milton imitators or occasional odious odists resorted to wild warblings, they seldom roamed far from the couplet's principles of conciseness and balance.

As recently as ten years ago, it was widely assumed that women poets were considerably less likely to employ heroic couplets than men, largely because of differences in temperament and interests. But now that more women's poems of the period have become available, we can see that such was not the case. It turns out that the few poems by women that have been valued and anthologized over the years were singled out precisely because of their difference and what that presumably told us about women's sensibilities, but really about ourselves. These poems represent what we moderns have valued and isolated as distinctively feminine, not what women typically wrote and not what they themselves then valued most.

Why did couplets work so indisputably well for so many for so long? And why, subsequently, have they worked so unbelievably badly? With a few exceptions in the nineteenth century and with even fewer in the twentieth, the couplet has disappeared, along with most other traditional forms of rhymed verse. Do formal properties explain why the couplet dominated an epoch as never before or since? Can the fading of couplet verse be explained as an instance of the "exhaustion" of the form? Were poetic imaginers no longer up to the task, as traditional literary history has implied? Or, over time, did the ears of listeners change, or did structures of thought and expression change so that "hearing" was no longer the same? What can one deduce from the rough correspondence between (on the one hand) the formal properties of the couplet and (on the other) the public events and formal institutions of the period from about the time of the English troubles at home to the eruption of revolution abroad? I do not fully know the answers to these questions yet, but I am pretty sure that they are not entirely to be found within the history of poetry--that one needs to examine larger cultural patterns of thought and discourse, rhetoric and argument. My focus here, though, is on a preliminary issue: what formal features of couplets might we be prone to misread (or read too simply) because of changing assumptions? Here I will briefly review only two of many formal features that deserve re-examination.

Rhyme, which was an indispensable feature of poetry in the age of the heroic couplet, has fallen badly out of favor in the modern era. Few poets now employ rhyme at all, and, consequently, we are not used to regarding rhyme as an effective way of providing aural pleasure or as a structural device to convey meaning. We do have rhyme in our lives, but we reserve for it a quite specific and usually comic place: Rhyme is jingle, a memory device for slick commercials, complicity of sound become simplicity of thought, or some false claim of feeling enforced by cheap trick. Rhymes, in popular songs and other vestiges of the oral poetry tradition, are at our culture's intellectual margins.

For most modern ears rhyme falls pretty much into two categories, neither of them to be trusted, though both are distantly derived from historic applications of rhyme. The first category involves nostalgia and sentimentality: It is what happens in valentines and other greeting cards you don't want to receive. The rhymes are predictable and the sentiments easy: moon/June; kiss/bliss; hug/snug; pleasure/treasure; calm/balm; thine/mine/wine/fine. Such rhymes, conventional to the point of being clichés even before the second sound clunks into place, have long been with us, and Pope parodied them long ago--"the sure returns of still expected rhymes," he called them--in explaining why they were both ineffective and stupid:

Where-e'er you find "the cooling western breeze,"
In the next line, it "whispers through the trees;"
If crystal streams "with pleasing murmurs creep,"
The reader's threatened (not in vain) with "sleep."

Such rhymes comfort with familiarity, and never do the rhyme words venture to connect things that romance or easy listening wish to stay disconnected: breeze/sleaze; love/shove; June/goon; hug/thug; romance/pants; eternity/paternity; court/snort; happy/nappy/yappy/sappy/crappy. The fact that sentimental rhymes persist in some strata of popular culture suggests that the similar sounds of words must once have been assumed to have some meaningful cohesive power, but thoughtful moderns seldom buy into such assumptions except in holiday states of mind: too easy, and too sleazy.

Rather, we are more apt to feed on rhyme that is comic or satiric--rhyme that parodies assumptions of hidden similarity and highlights ludicrous pairings. One of the more benign forms is in the popular Yuletide verse that Roger Angell annually presents readers of The New Yorker. His is always a high-spirited and chirpy performance, and it depends for its effects almost exclusively on playing with people's names; much of the fun is in making long strings of syllables rhyme (the challenges are names like Buttafuoco) especially if the rhyme can link celebrities together ludicrously or associate them with incongruous ideas or ideologies: It does in verse what The National Enquirer does in prose. Angell's latest effort, for example, manages to link Jose Mesa with Mother Theresa, Susan Lucci with Leo Nucci, Sharon Stone with John Malone, Andie MacDowell with Alma Powell, and Beverly Cleary with Timothy Leary. It's a good opportunistic idea, and Angell at his best reminds you a bit of Hudibras or Jonathan Swift, but in a lighter key.

Most contemporary musical satirists use similar comic rhyming: the Capitol Steps, Mark Russell, the Imis-in-the-morning parodists, and Tom Lehrer. Some of them do more with pyrotechnics of rhyme than others--Lehrer, for example, consistently makes his wit depend on ludicrous rhymes ("ave maria/gee it's good to see ya"), as do some popular lyricists ("magnifique/what I seek"). The Imis parodists (though they are often very silly) are surprisingly rhyme-sophisticated), while Mark Russell, though conceptually clever, gets little wit-mileage out of sound. All such strategies remind us that we are stuck with the sounds of our names and the associations they evoked to grade school wits and bullies--remember? Clinton thus largely escapes telling associations, and Gore does not; while poor Phil Gramm--rhymes with sham, scam, ham, damn, slam, whambam, and flimflam--probably needed to change his name, among other things, to survive the satiric process. Although these casual and teasing yokings may lead us to suspect that language and sound patterns can sometimes tell us things our conscious minds resist, most poets today (with the interesting exception of strongly oral poets, especially African Americans) no longer use rhyme seriously.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, poets viewed rhyme--and particularly the couplet rhyme--as a standard mode of communicating--and thinking. Couplet rhyme has a syntax of its own (as W. K. Wimsatt long ago pointed out) and makes a meaning claim in linking together words with the same sound. Something less than argument, this association creates a sense of relationship. The principle--so simple-minded-seeming when June is rhymed with moon or chills with thrills--operates in very sophisticated poetry. Thus, when John Dryden repeatedly makes kings rhyme with things (not wings or sings or brings or clings)--and rule with fool--he conveys particular opinions and values. Even though his actual syntax makes no specific claim, the rhyme makes the claim for him, seeming to deny the writer's agency and place the responsibility on language or the nature of things. Any rhyming of words performs some version of the same task, as do assonance, consonance, and alliteration, but couplet rhyming puts a special force on the association because of the rhyme's emphatic place in the line and the concentrated, insistent repetition of sound. The stress falls on rhyme and appears to give it finality and authority. Rhyme thus has a syntax distinct from that in conventional grammars, and parts of speech regularly cross over in rhyme to make the zaniest or most profound observations. The association of words at the ends of lines sets up comparisons that poets use rhetorically to assert and create attitudes.

What we need especially to note about couplet rhyme are two things: first, that rhyme tends to lead to judgments arrived at irrationally or at least a-rationally (sound alikes do not exactly prove similarities, even to committed homologists)--and thus ought to lead us to question the cliché about the couplet as an easy mouthpiece for age-of-reason propositions; and second, that the self-conscious process of noticing the jangle in the comparison tends somewhat to undercut the jingle aspects of couplets, something that unpracticed readers today have not been trained to hear or differentiate. The finality that may seem to result from the second shoe dropping in a couplet--when the expected sound comes home--is not nearly so dramatic as modern readers, who are victims of habit or innocent of history, hear it as being. For those in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this sound repetition--or rather the completed variation on the sound, the thump of the second shoe--would have created an expectation of future sound jingles and jangles--jingle to the ear, jangle to the mind--so that each couplet leads beyond itself to future connections, promising future harmonies and disruptions.

The perceived thump of the second shoe tempts modern readers to suppose that couplets are discrete, that they present closure of a thought. Before the middle of the seventeenth century, however, many couplets were not end-stopped but instead were en-jambed; that is, the end of a couplet did not necessarily coincide with the end of a clause or a thought unit. Poets such as Edmund Waller, Dryden, and Pope then made an issue of "closing" the couplet so that it would be tighter and more concise. The so-called closed couplet is certainly more demanding on the poet and tends, among critics and poets alike, to get more respect for its discipline and artistry. But just how closed is the closed couplet, and what are the relationships of individual couplets to each other?

The second-shoe theory seriously misleads us about the way couplets work in signaling completion. Second-shoe theory assumes we know how many shoes there are to drop, so that when the second one thumps down we know that the process is complete, the tension relieved, the expectation satisfied. That, however, is both true and not true for couplets. In one sense there are two shoes--that is, a second line to be chimed with the first. And the second shoe does signal completion of the cycle, at least in part. But if the rhyming sound signals that nothing more aurally can be predicted with certainty, it does not signal that no further sound developments lie ahead or that the thought is complete; in fact, it promises whole new sound patterns and new intellectual challenges of complication or modification. Often the repeated sound connects to other uses of sound within the same couplet or alludes ahead or backward to link up the sounds of one couplet with another and to make associations, again non-rational ones so that terms take on new associations and expanded meanings.

There are not neat pairs here--two shoes to a customer--just as sometimes the predictable number of feet in a line fools us by variation and rearrangement. In comedy routines and slapstick radio shows, the effect when (after we hear a second shoe drop) we hear a third and fourth--and then a fifth--may, depending on contexts, imply something quite more than we anticipated: someone going to bed; some two going to bed; no, even more, not just some ordinary coupling. And in poems, too, the satisfied anticipation is not necessarily the end of things, sounds being at least as promiscuous as people, and in couplet poems by nature so. But whether or not the rhyme sound directly connects one couplet to another, the closed couplet is not a closing down, not closure in the punning sense modern criticism has misleadingly implied--only an indication that a step has been achieved. Just as one sentence leads normally to another in prose--and together and with others adds up to an organized paragraph--so in poems the couplets add and accumulate. Couplets are not paragraphs, not completed units, not completed ideas.

We must therefore question the easy and misleading conclusion that a closed couplet means closure in a larger sense--pause, yes; indication of a step completed, yes; but nothing like a finished unit of thought. A couplet is something like a semicolon in a sentence that has several clauses and phrases. It is a mistake to think of couplets as stanzas; ordinarily, it takes about seven of them to become a verse paragraph, the closest approximation couplet poetry makes to a stanza, as the printings of couplets in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books makes clear. (The fact that couplet verse paragraphs are frequently the length of sonnets is a little eerie, but as far as I can see it means nothing except that units of thought may tend to be of a more-or-less common length.)

One simple indicator of how couplet poets think is to notice how infrequently they are memorable epigrammatists (though many modern critics imagine them to be), how seldom in fact they even try to write pithy poems of two lines--or even four or six. Poets such as Jonson, or Dryden, or William Congreve, or Sarah Egerton, or Pope think in larger terms; they are arguers, essayists (as titles of their poems very frequently suggest) rather than apothegmatists or versified Henny Youngmans, and they use the two-line unit simply as a brick for building something bigger. You can think of a lot of famous single lines from couplet poets ("A little learning is a dangerous thing," or "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread") for couplet poets are concise and witty, but few of their observations are memorable as couplets, simply because they do not think that way. Their two-line sense of balance and antithesis is part of a larger combination of contrasts. Binariness is only the beginning of the rhetorical structure: The rest of the story lies in discontent and re-formations.

Turning again to a passage from Pope helps us to see what happens when a series of couplets are read together as a paragraph. The passage begins with what has become a famous line which is then seriously modified in its meanings by subsequent allusions, accruals, and refinements. Note that even the aphoristic opening move, much in need of qualification, does not constitute an epigrammatic couplet: The second line (where the qualifications begin) is always omitted by those who want to reduce Pope's poetic ideas to the truths of a bumper sticker.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th' eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last:
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthened way,
Th' increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

Notice the way Pope manipulates the meter to speed up or slow down the reading pace and indicate swift movement and the quick passage of time on the one hand, or heavy, laborious dragging along on the other; the way the resources of classical learning and ancient time are summoned up, with the Alps which modern aristocrats and gentlemen visit on the grand tour fading into the old mountains of Greece, and contemporary springs drawing from the ancient fountains of the muses; the way the metaphors of intoxification and sobering operate first literally to confirm common sense, then magically to reverse it; the way the metaphors of heating and cooling--of fire and water in its various states from fountains to clouds to snow--suggest both physical conditions and human states of mind and body; the way drinking is manipulated to stand for reading, depth for persistence, distance for altitude, youth for freshness and length for age, as whole orders of being and activity are crossed and recrossed; the way perspective moves--and sights change--as we go from couplet to couplet, as if the crafter here were demonstrating just what closure does and does not mean; the way the experiences of everyday life are transformed into mythic travels and labors; and (ultimately) the way the simple summary pith of aphoristic expression is complicated and diversified into a statement almost of the experiential human condition, as it moves through bald generalizations, to nuanced argument, to meditation.

Comprehending why the heroic couplet held so tenacious a grip for so long a time is no easy venture: It involves renewed formal analysis properly historicized, and then larger cultural analysis of other kinds of texts and institutions. It requires exploring how poetic form related to the public culture of that 150 years when the halvings of the British nation took different forms and revised and recast the combatants in different combinations, when the culture became the two and many. It requires thinking of antithesis in pre-Hegelian, not necessarily synthesizing, ways in which contradictions continue to exist and to reassert and redefine themselves rather than being resolved. It requires rethinking dominant prose forms such as the dialogue and whole cultural institutions and practices--such as the rise of the two-party system--along with the crucial properties of the couplet itself. And it requires thinking about how different kinds of expression represent in different ways central patterns of experience and thought-formation. If I am right in formulating the questions about couplet hegemony in the way I have, reading a poetic form (or even a single poem) can provide insights into political, ethical, and economic (as well as aesthetic) issues--and especially into a historical era's way of framing and trying to resolve them.

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Revised: September 1996