How to Write Poems: Chapter 10: Heroic Couplets

Contents | Chapter 11: The Sonnet

In this chapter, we will read a description of a young woman, namely, the main character in Alexander Pope’s poem “The Rape of the Lock.” This poem was written in heroic couplets, which are couplets in iambic pentameter.

After we read the selection, we will write a poem with a similar form. Our poem will be a description of the Spirit of Christmas Past.

“The Rape of the Lock” is a lighthearted, humorous epic poem about a lock of hair. The poem was written by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and was first published in England in 1712. The following selection from the poem describes Belinda, the main character in the poem.

Fair nymphs, and well-dressed youths around her shone,

But every eye was fixed on her alone.

On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore,

Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.

Her lively looks a spritely mind disclose,

Quick as her eyes, and as unfixed as those:

Favours to none, to all she smiles extends;

Oft she rejects, but never once offends.

Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,

And, like the sun, they shine on all alike.

Yet graceful ease, and sweetness void of pride

Might hide her faults, if belles had faults to hide:

If to her share some female errors fall,

Look on her face, and you’ll forget ’em all.

This nymph, to the destruction of mankind,

Nourished two locks, which graceful hung behind

In equal curls, and well conspired to deck

With shining ringlets her smooth ivory neck.

Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains,

And mighty hearts are held in slender chains.

With hairy springes we the birds betray,

Slight lines of hair surprise the finny prey,

Fair tresses man’s imperial race ensnare,

And beauty draws us with a single hair.

We can see the iambic pentameter in the above selection by scanning the first two lines:

Fair nymphs,/and well-/dressed youths/around/ her shone,

But eve-/ry eye/was fixed/on her/alone.

Questions to ponder: How does Pope make use of metaphor in this selection? Does the placement of some of the verbs at the end of the line affect your ability to understand the poem? Do you think that making the poem rhyme and making it conform to iambic pentameter is worth the loss of the ability to understand it quickly?

Now we will write a descriptive poem in heroic couplets about the Spirit (or Ghost) of Christmas Past. We will use rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter consists of weakly stressed syllables alternating with strongly stressed syllables. The iamb is a foot consisting of one weakly stressed syllable followed by one strongly stressed syllable: wS. In iambic pentameter, there are five iambs, like this: wSwSwSwSwS.

The following is Charles Dickens’ description of the Spirit of Christmas Past.

It was a strange figure— like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white; and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.

Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.

First, we will put the description of the spirit into straightforward language with the ordinary word order (subject-verb-object, etc.).

  • It was a strange figure.
  • It was like a child, but more like an old man.
  • It was like an old man that had a child’s proportions.
  • Its hair was white and hung down its back and around its neck.
  • Its face had no wrinkles.
  • Its skin was glowing.
  • Its hands and arms were long and muscular and strong.
  • Its legs and feet were most delicately formed.
  • Its arms and legs were bare.
  • It wore a pure white tunic.
  • It wore a beautiful, shining belt.
  • It held a branch of fresh green holly.
  • Its dress was trimmed with summer flowers.
  • It had a bright beam of light coming from its head.
  • It held a cap to extinguish the light.
  • Its distinctness fluctuated.
  • Different parts of its body were visible at different times.
  • It became light and dark, by turns.
  • Its parts were not distinct, but dissolved in the heavy gloom.
  • Then, it would be itself again, and completely visible and clear.

Before we begin describing the spirit, we need to introduce the setting where the spirit appears. The words “room” and “gloom” seem like good words to describe the environment.

Ebenezer was peering through the gloom

He heard the clock strike one from his room

We will try to make these couplets using iambic pentameter, so each line needs to have ten syllables and each line should have five iambs. Remember, an iamb is one weakly stressed syllable followed by one strongly stressed syllable (wS). We can add an “As” to the first line, to start the line with an unstressed syllable.

As Ebenezer, peering through the gloom, (10)

Did hear the clock strike one within his room (10)

We need to revise the second line to make the stresses alternate.

Exercise: How would you revise the line that ends with “room” to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

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We can change the second line this way:

As Ebenezer, peering through the gloom, (10)

Did hear the strike of one within his room (10)

What happened when the clock struck one? The spirit appeared.

A strange ethereal figure appeared

The word “ethereal” does not have the right stresses (wSww).

A strange and glowing figure appeared (9)

We need to add a stressed syllable between “figure” and “appeared.”

Exercise: How would you make the above line conform to iambic pentameter?

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We can change “appeared” to “did appear.”

A strange and glowing figure did appear (10)

What words rhyme with “appear”? We need to search for words with the same length (two syllables) and the same stresses (wS).

Exercise: Find some words that rhyme with “appear.” The words should be two syllables and have the strong stress on the second syllable (wS).

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Here are some words that rhyme with “appear”:

adhere, austere, career, cashier, cohere, emir, frontier, premier, premiere, revere, severe, sincere, unclear, veneer

Exercise: Which word(s) might be useful in the description of the spirit?

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“Unclear” seems to be appropriate because the spirit’s features were unclear, as they kept coming into and going out of sight. (We don’t have to describe the spirit in the same order that Charles Dickens did. We can be creative.)

A strange and glowing figure did appear (10)

Exercise: How would you use “unclear” to write the line that rhymes with “appear”?

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Here is how we could write it:

A strange and glowing figure did appear (10)

Whose features were indistinct and unclear (10)

The stresses don’t work out, so we should revise the last line.

With body indistinct and quite unclear (10)

Here is what we have so far:

As Ebenezer, peering through the gloom,

Did hear the strike of one within his room

A strange and glowing figure did appear

With body indistinct and quite unclear

Now we will continue to describe the spirit. This is our straightforward description:

  • It was like a child, but more like an old man.
  • It was like an old man that had a child’s proportions.
  • Its hair was white and hung down its back and around its neck.

It was a ghost with a child’s proportions small (11)

This line has eleven syllables—one too many. We can remove “a child’s” (remove two syllables) and replace “ghost” with “spirit” (add one syllable).

It was a spirit with proportions small (10)

What words rhyme with “small”?

all, ball, bawl, brawl, call, caul, crawl, drawl, fall, gall, hall, mall, maul, pall, pol, scrawl, shawl, spall, sprawl, squall, stall, tall, thrall, wall

Exercise: Which word(s) above could be used to describe the spirit?

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“Shawl” might work. A shawl is a covering for the shoulders and/or head. We could say that its hair covered its neck and back like a shawl.

It was a spirit with proportions small (10)

Its hair clung to its neck and back like a shawl (11)

We need to change the last line. It has too many syllables.

It was a spirit with proportions small (10)

Its white hair covering it like a shawl (10)

We have a problem with “covering.” It has the stress pattern Sww. We can revise the line this way:

It was a spirit with proportions small (10)

Its white hair falling downward like a shawl (10)

What’s next?

  • Its face had no wrinkles.
  • Its skin was glowing.

These are similar ideas. Maybe we can make a couplet with them. The words that rhyme with “wrinkles”:

sprinkles, twinkles, winkles

Not too promising. The words that rhyme with “glowing” and “glow”:

blowing, bowing, crowing, flowing, going, growing, hoeing, knowing, lowing, owing, rowing, sewing, showing, slowing, snowing, sowing, throwing, toeing, towing

aux, beau, beaux, blow, bro, crow, doe, dough, eau, faux, floe, flow, foe, fro, grow, ho, hoe, jo, joe, know, lo, low, mow, no, oh, owe, pro, quo, rho, roe, row, sew, show, sloe, slow, snow, so, sow, stow, though, throw, toe, tow, whoa, wo, woe

Exercise: Which word(s) above could be used to describe the spirit?

~

We have a lot to work with.

No wrinkles did show

Its skin gave off a glow

“Did show” can be used instead of “showed” so that “show” will be at the end of the line.

On its face, no wrinkles did show (8)

And its skin did glow (5)

We need to add some syllables.

On face and skin did no deep wrinkles show (10)

And from its skin did come a shiny glow (10)

Here is the next part of our straightforward description:

  • Its hands and arms were long and muscular and strong.
  • Its legs and feet were most delicately formed.
  • Its arms and legs were bare.

We can see that “long” and “strong” rhyme.

Its bare limbs were delicate and strong

“Delicate” has the stress pattern Sww, which does not work in iambic pentameter, so we can use “graceful” instead.

Its bare limbs were quite graceful, strong (8)

We need to add some syllables.

Exercise: How would you revise the previous line so that it conforms to iambic pentameter?

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We can write it this way:

Its naked limbs were graceful, lithe, and strong (10)

Now we need to write something about its long fingers, or something. Maybe we can change “strong” to “long” in the previous line, since “long” goes better with “graceful.”

Its naked limbs were graceful, lithe, and long (10)

Although, at the same time, muscular and strong

“Muscular” has the stress pattern Sww. We can look for some synonyms for “muscular.”

Exercise: List some synonyms for “muscular.” Which ones are suitable for graceful and long limbs?

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Here are some synonyms for muscular:

able-bodied, athletic, brawny, burly, energetic, hardy, heavy-set, husky, lusty, manly, mighty, powerful, robust, sinewy, stout, tough, vigorous, virile

“Brawny” seems to be good.

Its naked limbs were graceful, lithe, and long (10)

But, all the same, they were brawny and quite strong (11)

We have too many syllables.

Exercise: How would you revise the line that ends with “strong,” so that it conforms to iambic pentameter?

~

We can write,

Its naked limbs were graceful, lithe, and long (10)

But they were also brawny, tough, and strong (10)

What is next in our description?

  • It wore a pure white tunic.
  • It wore a beautiful, shining belt.
  • It held a branch of fresh green holly.
  • Its dress was trimmed with summer flowers.

This part is about what the spirit was wearing. Right away, a rhyme for “belt” came to me: “felt.” Its tunic was as soft as felt. On the other hand, my dictionary says that felt has a fuzzy and springy surface—probably not what its tunic felt like. What words rhyme with “white”?

Exercise: Find the one-syllable words and the two-syllable words with the strong stress on the final syllable (wS) that rhyme with “white.” Select the words that might be useful in describing the spirit.

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Here are some words that rhyme with “white”:

bight, bite, blight, bright, byte, cite, fight, flight, fright, height, kite, knight, light, lite, might, mite, night, plight, quite, right, rite, sight, site, sleight, slight, spite, sprite, tight, trite, wright, write, alight, contrite, delight, despite, excite, polite, recite, rewrite, tonight, upright, uptight

These words might be useful:

bright, light, might, night, quite, right, sight, slight, sprite, tight, delight

It wore a tunic of pure white (8)

Around its waist a belt, fair and bright (9)

We need to add some syllables. “Florid” means “highly decorated” or “rosy,” but its old meaning is “flowery.”

It wore a florid tunic, colored white (10)

And girding it, a belt as fair and bright (10)

Next, we need to tell something about the holly that it was holding.

  • It held a branch of fresh green holly.

It held a branch of holly, fresh and green (10)

What words rhyme with “green”?

Exercise: List the one-syllable rhymes for “green.” Which word(s) could be used at the end of the line that will follow the line above?

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Here are some words that rhyme with “green”:

bean, clean, dean, gene, glean, jean, keen, lien, mean, mien, preen, queen, scene, screen, seen, sheen, skene, spleen, teen, tween, wean

The words that might work in the poem include the following:

clean, scene, seen

We might be able to combine the last line with the next description:

  • It had a bright beam of light coming from its head.
  • It held a cap to extinguish the light.

We might be able to use the word “seen” to write the next line.

Exercise: Use the word “seen” to write the line following “It held a branch of holly, fresh and green.” Tell what was seen coming from the spirit’s head. Don’t worry about the length of the line or the stresses.

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We can write it like this:

It held a branch of holly, fresh and green (10)

From the top of its head, a beam of light was seen (12)

We need to remove two syllables.

On its head, a beam of light could be seen (10)

We shouldn’t have the stresses fall on the small words: “its,” “a,” and “of.” We should revise the line.

It held a branch of holly, fresh and green (10)

And flowing from its forehead could be seen (10)

Now we should continue this thought on the next line, and conclude the part about the cap on the line after that.

[A light was seen.]

[It held a hat or cap to cover and extinguish the light.]

It held a branch of holly, fresh and green (10)

And flowing from its forehead could be seen (10)

A bright and lustrous beam of pearly light (10)

Here are some words that rhyme with “light”:

bight, bite, blight, bright, byte, cite, fight, flight, fright, height, kite, knight, lite, might, mite, night, plight, quite, right, rite, sight, site, sleight, slight, spite, sprite, tight, trite, white, wright, write, contrite, delight, despite, excite, polite, recite, rewrite, tonight, upright, uptight

These might be useful:

bright, flight, might, night, right, sight, white

It held a branch of holly, fresh and green (10)

And flowing from its forehead could be seen (10)

A bright and lustrous beam of pearly light (10)

And it held a cap to extinguish the beam from sight (13)

We need to remove three syllables.

Exercise: How would you revise the line above that ends with “sight” to make it conform to iambic pentameter?

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We can write it this way:

It held a branch of holly, fresh and green (10)

And flowing from its forehead could be seen (10)

A bright and lustrous beam of pearly light (10)

It held a cap to block the beam from sight (10)

Finally, we should conclude the poem with the beginning of the conversation between Scrooge and the spirit.

“Are you the Spirit of Christmas Past?” Scrooge asked (11)

We need to revise and remove one syllable.

“Are you the guiding spirit, Sir?” Scrooge asked (10)

Exercise: What words rhyme with asked? Which one(s) could we use here?

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Here are some words that rhyme with “asked”:

basked, masked, tasked, unmasked

Why don’t we use “unmasked”? We should change “Scrooge asked” to “he asked” because we know who is speaking, and “he” has less stress than “Scrooge.”

And Scrooge arose from bed, his ___ unmasked (9)

“Are you the guiding spirit, Sir?” he asked (10)

Exercise: What one-syllable noun could you put into the above blank to describe Scrooge’s mental state?

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We can use “shock”:

And Scrooge arose from bed, his shock unmasked (10)

“Are you the guiding spirit, Sir?” he asked (10)

Now let’s put it all together and add some punctuation.

As Ebenezer, peering through the gloom,

Did hear the strike of one within his room,

A strange and glowing figure did appear,

With body indistinct and quite unclear.

It was a spirit with proportions small,

Its white hair falling downward like a shawl.

On face and skin did no deep wrinkles show,

And from its skin did come a shiny glow.

Its naked limbs were graceful, lithe, and long,

But they were also brawny, tough, and strong.

It wore a florid tunic, colored white,

And girding it, a belt as fair and bright.

It held a branch of holly, fresh and green,

And flowing from its forehead could be seen

A bright and lustrous beam of pearly light;

It held a cap to block the beam from sight.

And Scrooge arose from bed, his shock unmasked,

“Are you the guiding spirit, Sir?” he asked.

Contents | Chapter 11: The Sonnet