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What Is a Heroic Verse?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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Heroic verse is a form of poetry commonly associated with heroic or epic storytelling in English verse. It is also called heroic line or heroic meter. Heroic verse in English usually consists of iambic pentameter and often contains rhyming couplets.

Iambic pentameter, the meter used in English heroic poetry, is made up of of five metrical units called feet. Each foot consists of two syllables. The stress falls on the second of two syllables, giving the foot the format "dah DUM." In some cases, the stress in the final foot of the line can be reversed or altered.

English heroic verse typically consists of couplets, known as heroic couplets. These couplets may or may not rhyme. English poet John Milton insisted that the proper form for heroic verse was not rhyming, citing the example of heroic poetry in other languages which did not rhyme. This type of non-rhyming iambic pentameter is called "blank verse." However, most heroic poetry in English consists of rhyming couplets.

Each line in a heroic couplet may represent a single sentence or concept, in which case the couplet is said to be "closed." Alternatively, the meaning of the couplet may flow from the first line to the second, in which case the couplet is said to be "enjambed." Most heroic poetry includes both closed and enjambed couplets, but the closed couplet is more typical of heroic verse.

The earliest examples of heroic verse in English occur in the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th-century poet who pioneered poetry in English. Chaucer was a major influence on subsequent English and Scottish poets. Heroic verse also occurs in Shakespeare, where characters switch into heroic couplets when making significant dramatic statements.

Heroic verse was a major feature of 17th and 18th century English poetry by poets such as John Dryden, Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope. Pope in particular made inventive use of heroic couplets. In The Rape of the Lock, Pope used the heroic style to satirical end by describing trivial and ridiculous events in couplets associated with epic narratives.

Traditions of heroic poetry vary depending on language. Greek heroic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey were written in dactylic hexameter, a meter consisting of six metrical feet. Each foot, called a metron in Greek, consists of one long syllable followed by two short ones. Roman poets such as Vergil also followed this style, making it the default heroic meter in Greek and Latin.

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