The hungry judges soon the Sentence sign,
And Wretches hang that Jury-men may Dine.

The heroic couplet, lines in iambic pentameter rhymed in pairs, appeared early in English — it was Chaucer's favorite meter — and came into vogue in poetic drama in the seventeenth century, but in the eighteenth century, in the hands of masters like Dryden, Pope, and Johnson, it became for many years the dominant English verse form. In the Neo-classical period the heroic couplet consisted of a couplet of end-stopped lines which formed a short stanza, and substituted for the Greek and Latin heroic hexameter.

Why should this meter, with its strongly symmetrical grammatical structure, be perceived by poets like Pope and Johnson as an ideal structure to embody and convey the emphasis on form and sense and wit which they sought so insistently in their work? And why would the rebellious Romantics, in their quest for personal and poetic freedom, (with a few important exceptions, such as Byron, and, to a lesser degree, Keats) react so strongly against these same qualities?


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Originally created 1987; last modified July 2000