A couplet is a pair of rhymed lines of poetry. Such pairs can occur on their own, as short poems or aphorisms, or strung together as long poems or combined with other poetic forms, most commonly as the final lines of an English-style, or Shakespearean, sonnet. The couplet’s importance lies in its versatility.
One Form, Many Purposes
Heroic couplets are pairs of iambic pentameter, a form favored by Geoffrey Chaucer and by the 17th- and 18-century English poets, notably Alexander Pope. An elegiac couplets is an older form, favored by classical writers; it comprises one line of dactylic hexameter and one of pentameter, with a brief pause, or caesura, in the middle. In both cases, the couplets are closed, meaning that each pair of lines constitutes a single thought or complete sentence. Couplets are frequently used for comic effect. Dorothy Parker, Dr. Seuss and Gertrude Stein all used couplets in this way. Pope and Chaucer wrote lengthy comical pieces, entirely in satiric or comedic couplets. They are not always comical, however, as the term “elegiac” suggests; in fact, even in Chaucer's work, couplets can prove solemn or grand. When combined with other forms, couplets may take on a special significance. Adapting the Italian sonnet, English poets like William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser wrote three four-line quatrains with a couplet at the end. The couplet is usually the most important passage, delivering the theme of the whole or commenting on it in a surprising way.