Couplets are easy to come by for the poetry lover because he or she is familiar with the use and placement of such literary devices. For those who are not as involved with literature, breaking the word down helps to uncover the meaning.
See the word couple in "couplet?" That is at least part of what a couplet is: a couple of lines. However, to the untrained eye, distinguishing a couplet from merely a couple of lines can be difficult.
Couplets frequently rhyme and have the same length and rhythm, or meter. There are closed couplets, where the two lines are separate sentences, and open couplets, where the first line runs onto the second line. As you'll see in these couplet examples, whether closed or open, the two lines belong together, forming a unit and sharing a thought.
Perhaps the best place to start when looking for couplets is with the famous couplets from William Shakespeare. He often ended a sonnet with a rhyming couplet that summed up the main theme of the poem.
Some examples of couplets at the end of Shakespeare's sonnets are:
"Blessed are you whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph; being lacked, to hope." - Sonnet 52
"So, till the judgement that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes." - Sonnet 55
"Tir'd with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone." - Sonnet 66
"You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men." - Sonnet 81
"How like Eve's apple doth thy beauty grow,
If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!" - Sonnet 93
Even without having read the rest of these sonnets, a reader can make some educated guesses about the content of the poem based on the couplets alone.
Shakespeare isn't the only writer from a bygone era who embraced the use of the couplet. Alexander Pope, an English writer and poet who lived from 1688-1744, was famous for his satirical verse and use of heroic couplets, which use rhyming iambic pentameter.
Here are some examples from his works:
"Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside." - An Essay on Criticism
"Be thou the first true merit to befriend;
His praise is lost, who stays till all commend." - An Essay on Criticism
"Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive, divine." - An Essay on Criticism
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest." - An Essay on Man
"'Tis education forms the common mind,
Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined." - Epistles to Several Persons
"Singing he was, or fluting all the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May."
Some modern poets and writers use couplets as well. For instance, children's author Shel Silverstein included some great examples of couplets in his poems:
"I have the measles and the mumps,
a gash, a rash and purple bumps." - Sick
"So pardon the wild crazy thing I just said --
I'm just not the same since there's rain in my head." - Rain
There are many couplet examples floating around in the literary realm. Here are a few more to further illustrate what a couplet is:
"Whether or not we find what we are seeking
is idle, biologically speaking." - I Shall Forget You Presently, My Dear, Edna St Vincent Millay
"I do not like green eggs and ham
I do not like them Sam I am." - Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss
"The strangest strange stranger I've met in my life
was the man who made use of his nose as a knife." - Slicing Salami, Denise Rodgers
"I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I." - Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop, W. B. Yeats
Once again, even without knowing the rest of the works or anything at all about the authors, determining at least partially what the poem may be about is not difficult after reading the couplets.
The couplet form is a popular device in poetry. The main purpose is to make a poignant point that leaves a lasting impression with the reader. Through the use of rhyme and rhythm in the couplets, that effect is generally achieved. However, Alexander Pope parodied the form when he wrote in An Essay on Criticism:
"Where-e'er you find 'the cooling western breeze,'
In the next line, it 'whispers through the trees;'
In crystal streams 'with pleasing murmurs creep,'
The readers threatened (not in vain) with 'sleep.'"
Pope is poking fun at his contemporaries for overusing the couplet. Like any literary device, if the couplet is used too frequently, it loses its effect and becomes mind-numbing rather than thought-provoking.
YourDictionary has more examples of rhyming couplets if you're interested in the format.