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Heroic Couplets
[page 3]

In the heyday of the couplet, Alexander Pope became the form's acknowledged master and most dogged practitioner; nearly all of Pope's poetry consists of heroic couplets. Pope's couplets tend to be balanced and regular, even by the standards of the couplet form. As noted in the page on caesurae, when you find a caesura in Pope's verse, it will most often come in the middle of a line, after the fourth, fifth, or sixth syllable. Using ostentatious rhymes, heavy end-stopping, and inverted sentence structures, Pope's couplets create humorous parallels and contrasts between high and low subjects, often reserving a witty rhyme for the couplet's close.

Much of Pope's verse engages in satirical mockery of human folly, as illustrated by this passage describing Belinda's "toilet" (dressing and makeup table, that is) in The Rape of the Lock:

  And now, unveil'd, the toilet stands display'd,

  Each silver vase in mystic order laid.

  First, rob'd in white, the nymph intent adores

  With head uncover'd, the cosmetic pow'rs.

  A heav'nly image in the glass appears,

  To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears;

  Th' inferior priestess, at her altar's side,

  Trembling, begins the sacred rites of pride.

  Unnumber'd treasures ope at once, and here

  The various off'rings of the world appear;

  From each she nicely culls with curious toil,

  And decks the goddess with the glitt'ring spoil.

  This casket India's glowing gems unlocks,

  And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.

  The tortoise here and elephant unite,

  Transform'd to combs, the speckled and the white.

  Here files of pins extend their shining rows,

  Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux.

  Now awful beauty puts on all its arms;

  The fair each moment rises in her charms,

  Repairs her smiles, awakens ev'ry grace,

  And calls forth all the wonders of her face;

  Sees by degrees a purer blush arise,

  And keener lightnings quicken in her eyes. 

As you look at the passage above, consider ways in which Pope parallels serious and trivial subjects within the couplet structure to create humor.

For more on Pope, see S. Constantine's Rape of the Lock page or The Victorian Web's introduction to the Essay on Man.

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