Definition of Couplet

A couplet is a successive pair of lines in a poem. The pair of lines that comprise a couplet generally with each other and contain the same . Couplets are either closed, which is to say that both lines are end-stopped, or open, which is to say that there is involved and the meaning of the line runs on past the end of the line. Closed couplets are also known as formal couplets, while open couplets are sometimes called run-on couplets.

The definition of couplet comes from the French word couple, which means “a little pair.”

Types of Couplets

There are also several forms of poetry that include couplets as an important part of the overall structure:

Common Examples of Couplet

The term couplet generally only refers to poetry, though it can be found in folk songs and even some advertising. Here are some familiar examples of couplet in American culture:

Hush, little baby, don’t you cry.
Mama’s gonna sing you a lullaby.

—Traditional lullaby

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

—Traditional lullaby

The best part of waking up
is Folgers in your cup.

—Advertising jingle for Folgers coffee

Significance of Couplet in Literature

It’s clear from the numerous styles of couplets that they have been a part of the literary traditions of many different cultures, from China to Northern Africa and the Middle East, from Ancient Greece to Elizabethan England. The couplet is an attractive form because it can contain so much meaning in a short pair of lines yet also lend itself to developing a longer whole. The first line often posits something that the second line answers.

Examples of Couplet in Literature

Example #1

In the hexameter rises the fountain’s silvery column,
In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.

(“The Ovidian Elegiac Metre” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

This is an elegiac couplet example that Samuel Taylor Coleridge created as a translation from the German writer Friedrich Schiller’s explanation of the meter of this particular form. The couplet serves both to explain and demonstrate the way in which the combination of a hexameter and pentameter line sound together. The elegiac couplet thus seems to mimic the natural inhalation and exhalation of every person—something rising with meaning and then, just as quickly, falling away.

Example #2

There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
170 To every human being: I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.

(“Canto Two” from Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov)

This is an interesting example of heroic couplets from Vladimir Nabokov’s meta-novel Pale Fire. Part of the novel includes a 999-line poem that Nabokov himself wrote, yet attributes to a character in the novel. This long poem is written in a series of heroic couplets, as we can see in the above excerpt. Each set of two lines rhymes and contains a certain intrinsic unity.

Example #3

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)

This is the final couplet from one of William Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets (the opening line to this sonnet is the familiar “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and it is a great example of the function of a final couplet in English sonnets. The majority of the poem describes wondrousness of the narrator’s lover, but also the way in which beauty fades over time. The narrator concludes with the optimistic sentiment that even after the beauty of this lover fades, the words of this sonnet will serve as memorial for the beauty that once was. The couplet provides a lovely conclusion to the poem, but is also a wonderful stand-alone message for the importance of literature.

Example #4

Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you’d poured–what?–even the rain.

Of this pear-shaped orange’s perfumed twist, I will say:
Extract Vermouth from the bergamot, even the rain.

How did the Enemy love you–with earth? air? and fire?
He held just one thing back till he got even: the rain.

(“Even the Rain” by Agha Shahid Ali)

This is an excerpt from a modern ghazal by the poet Agha Shahid Ali. Several of the key features of ghazal couplets can be seen in these lines. The second line of each couplet ends with the words “even the rain,” though Shahid Ali clearly plays around with the meaning of these three words together (for example, the third couplet in this excerpt uses the word “even” in a different way than the other two couplets). Each couplet contains its own meaning, yet the way in which Shahid Ali builds the theme from one couplet to the next is masterful.

Example #5

Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she’s at rest – and so am I.

(by John Dryden)

This is a short and humorous poetic epigram from the poet John Dryden, written satirically for his wife. This is an example of a couplet which is completely stand-alone, and is not connected to a larger poem.