How to Write Poems – Chapter 8: Unmetered Couplets

Contents | Chapter 9: Blank Verse

In this chapter, we will read a selection from a poem that was written in couplets. The selection is a description of a river. Then, we will write a poem in couplets that describes Ebenezer Scrooge.

The following selection is from the poem “Green River” by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). Besides being a poet, Bryant was also a lawyer and an editor. In this poem, he describes a green river and its influence on him. He uses rhymed couplets, but he does not follow a set meter. Each line is either nine or ten syllables.

Yet pure its waters—its shallows are bright (10)

With colored pebbles and sparkles of light, (10)

And clear the depths where its eddies play, (9)

And dimples deepen and whirl away, (9)

And the plane-tree’s speckled arms o’er-shoot (9)

The swifter current that mines its root, (9)

Through whose shifting leaves, as you walk the hill, (10)

The quivering glimmer of sun and rill (10)

With a sudden flash on the eye is thrown, (10)

Like the ray that streams from the diamond-stone. (10)

Oh, loveliest there the spring days come, (9)

With blossoms, and birds, and wild-bees’ hum; (9)

The flowers of summer are fairest there, (10)

And freshest the breath of the summer air; (10)

And sweetest the golden autumn day (9)

In silence and sunshine glides away. (9)

Questions to ponder: Do you think the author does a good job of describing the river? Does it put an image in your mind? Have you been affected by nature in a similar way? Do you think that nature is a worthy subject for a poem?

In this first practice poem, we will simply make some couplets that rhyme. We won’t worry too much about the length of each line, and we won’t worry at all about where each syllable stress is located.

The following quotation contains portions from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that describe the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. I have put the adjectives and phrases that describe Scrooge in bold font.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he…

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?”… But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance…

…”If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!

…”I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned— they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides— excuse me— I don’t know that.”

Now let’s write down and organize all of the descriptive words and phrases.

Abstract characteristics:

  • “tight-fisted”
  • “hand at the grindstone” (hard worker)
  • “squeezing”
  • “wrenching”
  • “grasping”
  • “scraping”
  • “clutching”
  • “covetous”
  • “old sinner”
  • “hard”
  • “sharp as flint”
  • “secret”
  • “self-contained”
  • “solitary as an oyster”
  • “bitterer”
  • “what did Scrooge care!” (unconcerned about others’ opinions)
  • “warning all human sympathy to keep its distance…” (misanthropic)
  • “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” (uncaring, cruel)
  • “I wish to be left alone,” (solitary)
  • “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas” (unemotional, cold)
  • “decrease the surplus population” (cynical)
  • “Besides— excuse me— I don’t know that.” (willfully ignorant)

Physical characteristics:

  • “cold”
  • “old features”
  • “pointed nose”
  • “shrivelled his cheek”
  • “stiffened his gait”
  • “eyes red”
  • “thin lips blue”
  • “grating voice”
  • “frosty”
  • “wiry chin”
  • “low temperature”

Let’s describe Scrooge’s physical characteristics first. He has “old features,” including a pointed nose, shriveled cheeks, red eyes, thin blue lips, and a wiry chin. Let’s find some synonyms for these words so they will be available if we need them when we are writing the poem in couplets.

Here are the original words and some synonyms:

  • pointed: keen, sharp, spiked, tapered, tapering
  • nose: snoot, bill, snout, beak
  • shriveled: shrunken, dried up, withered
  • cheeks: jowls, chops
  • red: scarlet, carmine, crimson, cherry, ruby, maroon, rust, pink, rose
  • eye: optic, orb, peeper
  • thin: slim, slight, skinny, slender
  • blue: azure, lapis lazuli, aqua, royal, navy, cobalt, teal
  • lips: speech organ, edge of the mouth
  • wiry: lean, sinewy
  • chin: chops, jaw, jawbone, jowl, mandible, muzzle

Now we can begin to write. What should we say about Scrooge first? We can use a metaphor and compare Scrooge to an old, dry raisin.

Scrooge was a hard old raisin, dry and sharp

There are not many rhymes for “sharp,” so we should change the order.

Scrooge was a hard old raisin, sharp and dry

Do you see any words from our synonym list above that rhyme with “dry”? How about “eye”? He had red eyes. We can say,

He had a sharp nose and crimson eyes

“Eyes” has an “s” on it, unlike “dry,” so we should change “dry” or “eyes.”

He was sharp of nose and red of eye

And now we have our first rhyme:

Scrooge was a hard old raisin, sharp and dry

He was sharp of nose and red of eye

We should change one of the “sharp” words, so that the word won’t be repeated.

Exercise: How would you edit the above couplet to avoid the repetition of “sharp”?

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We can write it this way:

Scrooge was a hard old raisin, rough and dry

He was sharp of nose and red of eye

Now we have to tell that Scrooge was frosty and cold. “Cold” rhymes with “old.” We have been describing Scrooge’s old features. Maybe we should talk about his coldness first.

Scrooge’s blood ran bitter and cold

And all of his features were old

He was a hard old raisin, rough and dry

He was sharp of nose and red of eye

What else can we say about him? We can talk about his cheeks, lips, and chin. If we talk about his lips, we can say they are “thin,” which rhymes with “chin.”

His lips were blue and thin

And sinewy was his chin

We should add some words to make the lines longer. “Sere” means “dry” and “meager” means “thin.”

His blue lips were very sere and thin

And beneath them hung his meager chin

What’s left of his physical features? His stiff gait, his shriveled cheeks, and his grating voice. What can we say about these things?

While he was speaking, with his harsh voice

Or,

He had wrinkled cheeks and a voice so harsh

What rhymes with “harsh”? Not much. Does anything rhyme with “raspy”? No, again. How about voice?

choice, invoice, rejoice

We can use “voice” and “choice” to make a couplet:

When people heard his rasping voice

They avoided him by simple choice

Now we can say something about his gait. What rhymes with gait?

Exercise: Find the words that rhyme with “gait.” Which word(s) might be useful in the description of Scrooge?

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Here are some words that rhyme with “gait”:

ate, bait, bate, cate, crate, date, eight, fait, fate, fete, freight, gate, grate, great, hate, late, mate, pate, plait, plate, rate, sate, skate, slate, spate, state, straight, strait, trait, wait, weight

These words might be useful in our description:

ate, fate, gate, great, hate, late, pate, rate, sate, state, straight, trait, wait

We can use “wait”:

When people spied him and his awkward gait

They headed the other way—they didn’t wait

Here is what we have so far:

Scrooge’s blood ran bitter and cold

And all of his features were old

He was a hard old raisin, rough and dry

He was sharp of nose and red of eye

His blue lips were very sere and thin

And beneath them hung his meager chin

When people heard his rasping voice

They avoided him by simple choice

When people spied him and his awkward gait

They headed the other way—they didn’t wait

Next, we can turn to Scrooge’s abstract characteristics. We can put his characteristics into some larger groups:

  • Stingy: “tight-fisted,” “squeezing,” “wrenching,” “grasping,” “scraping,” “clutching,” “covetous”
  • Hardworking: “hand at the grindstone” (hard worker)
  • Solitary: “secret,” “self-contained,” “solitary as an oyster,” “I wish to be left alone.”
  • Cruel and cold: “hard,” “sharp as flint,” “bitterer,” “warning all human sympathy to keep its distance…” (misanthropic), “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” (uncaring, cruel), “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas” (unemotional, cold)
  • Other characteristics: “old sinner,” “what did Scrooge care!” (unconcerned about others’ opinions), “decrease the surplus population” (cynical), “Besides— excuse me— I don’t know that.” (willfully ignorant)

We don’t have to use every description of Scrooge. Where should we start? Here’s what we wrote last:

When people spied him and his awkward gait

They headed the other way—they didn’t wait

We can say,

They knew him to be cruel and stingy

Not many words rhyme with “stingy” so we can change the order:

They knew him to be stingy and cruel

What words rhyme with “cruel”?

crewel, dual, duel, fuel, jewel

Maybe we could use “dual” or “jewel.”

They knew him to be stingy and cruel

Gain for him was the crown jewel

In other words, gain was the most important thing to him. Let’s use another word for “gain.” Let’s check the thesaurus.

Exercise: What are some synonyms for “gain”?

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We can use the word “profit”:

They knew him to be stingy and cruel

Profit for him was the crown jewel

Next, we can talk about his hardworking and solitary nature.

He worked hard and wanted to be alone

What words rhyme with “alone”?

Exercise: Find some two-syllable words that rhyme with “alone” and have the strong stress on the second syllable (wS).

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Here are some words that rhyme with “alone”:

atone, bemoan, cologne, condone, cyclone, dethrone, disown, outshone, postpone, trombone, unknown

The word “unknown” might work.

He worked hard and wanted to be alone

He didn’t care if he was quite unknown

Now we should talk about his uncaring and unemotional nature.

He revealed no good and strong emotion

Or,

He couldn’t feel positive emotion

Words that rhyme with “emotion”:

commotion, demotion, devotion, promotion

Let’s change “emotion” to “feelings.”

He didn’t have any good feelings

“Dealings” rhymes with “feelings”:

He didn’t have any good feelings

He was cynical in all of his dealings

Next, we can summarize some of his characteristics:

Hardworking, stingy, and uncaring

What words rhyme with “uncaring”? Here are some two- and three-syllable rhymes:

airing, baring, bearing, blaring, chairing, daring, erring, flaring, glaring, haring, herring, pairing, paring, scaring, sharing, snaring, sparing, squaring, staring, swearing, tearing, waring, wearing childbearing, comparing, declaring, despairing, impairing, preparing, red-herring, repairing, unsparing, overbearing

What words can we use to write the next line of the couplet?

Exercise: Pick out some words from the above rhyming words that might work for the next line.

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Here are some words that might be useful:

daring, erring, glaring, scaring, sharing, sparing, squaring, staring, swearing, wearing comparing, declaring, impairing, preparing, unsparing

We could say,

Hardworking, stingy, and uncaring

Only cared that his accounts were squaring

Or,

Hardworking, stingy, and uncaring

To his debtors he was unsparing

Now we should wrap up the poem. What can we say that will summarize Scrooge’s character?

Scrooge was neither liberal nor merry

Or,

Although Scrooge was obsessed with gain

What words rhyme with “gain”?

Exercise: Find the one-syllable rhymes for “gain” and pick out the ones that might be useful to describe Scrooge.

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Here are some rhymes for “gain”:

bane, blain, brain, cane, chain, crane, deign, drain, fain, fane, feign, grain, Jane, lain, lane, main, mane, pain, pane, plain, plane, rain, reign, rein, sane, seine, skein, slain, sprain, stain, strain, swain, thane, train, twain, vain, vane, vein, wane

We have a lot of good words to choose from. These words might be useful:

bane, brain, cane, chain, main, pain, reign, sane, strain, swain, vain, wane

Although Scrooge was obsessed with gain

His was bound to his money with chains

We have a slight problem. “Chains” is not a perfect rhyme for “gain.” We can use “pain” instead.

And though Scrooge was obsessed with gain

He had very little to show for his pain

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

Scrooge’s blood ran bitter and cold,

And all of his features were old.

He was a hard old raisin, rough and dry;

He was sharp of nose and red of eye;

His blue lips were very sere and thin,

And beneath them hung his meager chin;

When people heard his rasping voice,

They avoided him by simple choice;

When people spied him and his awkward gait,

They headed the other way—they didn’t wait;

They knew him to be stingy and cruel;

Profit for him was the crown jewel;

He didn’t have any good feelings;

He was cynical in all of his dealings;

Hardworking, stingy, and uncaring,

To his debtors he was unsparing;

And though Scrooge was obsessed with gain,

He had very little to show for his pain.

Contents | Chapter 9: Blank Verse