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Heroic Couplets
[Page 4]

In some ways, the Romantic period (which began in the late 1700s in Britain and continued well into the nineteenth century in Britain, Europe, and the United States) saw the downfall of the couplet as writers turned to more flexible and variable forms. Certainly, the most canonical Romantic poets rarely employed couplets. Though John Keats did write rhymed couplets, even he rebelled against the conventions of Pope's writing by using open couplets, which do not adhere to the strictly balanced structure of heroic couplets. Some poets of the Romantic period did use heroic couplets, generally to adopt a satirical tone about public events (as in Anna Lætitia Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven) or to address a particularly conservative audience--I found researching Romantic-era prize poems that every Oxford prize poem through at least 1834 was written in heroic couplets.

The best couplets written during and after the Romantic period do, however, tend to use open couplets. Here is a famous example from the nineteenth century, Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess":




  That's my last duchess painted on the wall,

  Looking as if she were alive. I call

  That piece a wonder, now: Fr‡ Pandolf's hands

  Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

  Will't please you sit and look at her? I said

  "Fr‡ Pandolf" by design, for never read

  Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

  The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

  But to myself they turned (since none puts by

  The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

  And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,

  How such a glance came there; so, not the first

  Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not

  Her husband's presence only, called that spot

  Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps

  Fr‡ Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps

  "Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint

  "Must never hope to reproduce the faint

  "Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff

  Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

  For calling up that spot of joy. She had

  A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,

  Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er

  She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

  Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,

  The dropping of the daylight in the West,

  The bough of cherries some officious fool

  Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule

  She rode with round the terrace--all and each

  Would draw from her alike the approving speech,

  Or blush, at least. She thanked men--good! but thanked

  Somehow--I know not how--as if she ranked

  My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

  With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame

  This sort of trifling? Even had you skill

  In speech--which I have not--to make your will

  Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this

  "Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,

  "Or there exceed the mark"--and if she let

  Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set

  Her wits to yours, forsooth, and make excuse,

  --E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose

  Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,

  Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without

  Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

  Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands

  As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet

  The company below, then. I repeat,

  The Count your master's known munificence

  Is ample warrant that no just pretense

  Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

  Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed

  At starting, is my object. Nay we'll go

  Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,

  Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

  Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! 



Many readers do not notice Browning's subtle couplets when first reading or hearing this poem. Consider the ways in which Browning's couplet form departs from Pope's in its use of enjambment, caesura, and parallelism. What does it mean for your reading of the poem that the Duke, who claims not to have "skill / In speech," creates these subtle couplets as he addresses the Count's envoy?
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