10. Stanza Forms
A couplet is a pair of rhymed lines of equal length, whether short or long. As a stanza
form, couplet is the shortest of all fixed stanza forms.
There are closed and open forms of couplets. Both of them can be used
either as a stanza, or, make up part of a larger or complex stanza.
10.1.1 Closed couplets
It is closed when the thought within the two lines is complete:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
— From Sonnet 66 by W. Shakespeare
The grave is a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
——To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Mrvell(1621-1678)
Octosyllabic couplets (the 8 syllable couplets) may give a lighter, less dignified rhythm
as shown in the above two lines. Following is a poem all made up of
William Henry Davies
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty's glance
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
A very common closed couplet is called heroic couplet of 10 syllables and five accents (iambic pentameter) in each line. It was first used in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women:
A thóusand tímes háve I hérd men télle
That thér is jóye in héven, and péyne in hélle…
The heroic couplet had its great period between 1660 and 1790 when most major poets
from John Dryden (1631-1700) to George Crabbe (1754-1832) used it; its great master was Alexander Pope (1688-1744) who brought this metrical medium to perfection
and used it as a structural unit of a longer stanza:
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,
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But, those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labors of the lengthened way,
The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hills o'er hills and Alps on Alps arise!
(From An Essay on Criticism, Part 2, lines 215-232, by Alexander Pope)
Heroic couplets are often used in poems with serious themes in a dignified manner. The special effect this stanza form creates is of self-affirmation; what is said in the first line is
developed in the second, and then completed by the rhyme to make a strong, self-contained statement. Because the self-affirming quality of the heroic couplet it is often used
by poets to conclude a poem, adding a firmness and strength to the whole poem,or a
larger stanza. All Shakespeare's sonnets are ended in heroic couplets.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
——Willian Shakespeare:Sonnet 2
P. B. Shelley in his Ode to the West Wind also ends each section by a
couplet. Following is the last part of the poem which ends in a couplet:
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind!
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Besides, heroic couplet is particularly suited to argument:
In words as fashions the same rule will hold,
Alike fantastic if too new or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
— From An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope
10.1.2 Open couplets
When the thought runs past the two rhymed lines it is open couplet:
That’s my last Dutches painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
— From My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
Kelly's kept an unlicensed bull, well away
From the road: you risked a fine but had to pay
The normal fee if cows were serviced there.
Once I dragged a nervous Friesian on a tether
Down a lane of alder, shaggy with cartkin,
Dow to the shed the bull was kept in.
I gave Old Kelly the clammy silver, though why
I could not guess. He grunted curt‘Go by,
Get up on that gate.’And from my lofty station
I watched the businesslike conception.
The door unbolted, whacked back against the wall.
The illegal sire fumbled from his stall
Unhurried as an old steam engine shunting.
He circled, snored and nosed. No hectic panting,
Just the unfussy ease of a good tradesman;
Then an awkward, unexpected jump, and
His knobbled forelegs stradling her flank,
He slammed life home, impassive as a tank,
Dropping off like a tipped-up load of sand.
‘She'll do,’said Kelly and tapped his ashplant
Across her hindquarters.‘If not, bring her back.’
I walked ahead of her, the rope now slack
While Kelly whooped and prodded his outlaw
Who, in his own time, resumed the dark, the straw.
Open couplets are also used widely and frequently by poets to achieve
certain purposes: Take Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Spring and Fall for instance,
open couplets are used in the poem to achieve a humorous tone though he used a special metrical pattern that he called ‘sprung rhythm’:
Spring and Fall
To a Young Child
Márgarét, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrows springs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
( To be continued)