John Dryden's Use of The Heroic Couplet

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      The heroic couplet is a combination of the "heroic" line, i.e, the ten syllabic iambic line, and the couplet form. Thus, in this measure, we have two rhyming lines, each an iambic pentameter. It involves a pause at the end of the first line and the completion of the sense at the end of the couplet. The form is "closed" or complete in itself.

      Introduced by Chaucer into England, it was later used in a free manner by some of the Elizabethans. It was Waller and Denham who brought to the form dignity and some measure of excellence. Dryden and Pope were the ones to perfect the form.

Closed Couplet with Epigrammatic Finish

      In Dryden's hands, it achieved rare effects and brilliance. He practiced 'closed' couplets, i.e., a measure in which the sense is complete, or nearly complete, with every couplet. Used in this manner, many of his couplets are aphoristic and easy to remember. The epigrammatic finish marks Dryden's heroic couplets. Refined, polished and correct, they brilliantly compress thoughts into a compact and ordered form. The lines,

His courage foes, his friends his truth proclaim His loyalty the king, the world his fame.

      Show Dryden's skill of putting the word, "proclaim", in the most strategic position.

Flexibility of Dryden’s Verse

      Dryden's verse is flexible - his variety of cadence prevents monotony. "Dryden's gift for adapting his rhythmical emphasis to his meaning amounted to genius", as Mark Van Doren observes. His use of heroic couplets is varied to create different moods:

Auspicious Prince, at whose nativity
Some royal planet ruled the Southern Sky........

      Is the beginning of a striking passage in which Achitophel tempts Absalom: It is striking in its effect of lofty presumption, a "notable illustration of Dryden's magnificent rhetoric, of that union of sweetness with strength, of massiveness with flexibility, which distinguished his rhythm, the vigor, the incisiveness and power of his style", as Carlton Collins points out.

Freedom and Variety in Dryden's use of the Heroic Couplet

      Dryden does not adhere strictly to the form of heroic couplet. He achieves variety and subtlety through deviation from the conventional, standard form. He does this through the following devices:

      Inversion of accent, as in the line, where the stressed syllables are not regular as is usual in iambic verse.

Early in foreign fields, he won renown

      Use of polysyllabic words, along with alliteration and contrasted short words, such as, it is most effective in satiric verse.

Drawn to the dregs of democracy.

      Alexandrine and triplets are also used, but Dryden is very careful in his adaptation of these variations. As Alexandrine is a line of twelve syllables while a triplet is a set of three rhyming lines.

      Varied use of caesura or pause. Dryden does not always pause at the end of the first line, as the heroic couplet technically demands. His caesura or pause are appropriate to the flow of his thought. The "form comes as the natural dress" with which the brilliant and vivid ideas are spontaneously invested.


      Dryden shows variety in his use of the heroic couplet which gives force and vitality to his poetry and avoids monotony. His handling of the couplet is admirable. He made it a perfect medium for satiric purposes.

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