ENG 3U: On Bad Poetry

Sometimes, I get this really strange idea in my head that the best way to communicate with my students is through poetry.  I apologize in advance.

Today, students, let’s talk the art of rhymes,

And the ones used in Elizabethan times.

These rhymes aren’t common rhymes, you see

They’re Heroic Couplets, mimicking God’s creativity.

This sounds odd, you think? Well, think on this:

The Heroic Couplet, two rhyming lines,

Ten beats each, alternating to keep time,

Was thought to be the perfect poetic form,

Like God’s perfect words when all things were born.

Will Shakespeare wrote many couplets like these

In his Sonnets and in soliloquies.

(In truth, speeches ended with rhyming pairs;

The rest was blank verse, which differs a hair

Because his blank verse had two lines, ten beats

But no rhymes of which we can speak).

You wonder why I mention this today?

Would you rather we just got to the play?

Before considering more of Act II,

We need to find some answers, me and you.

Oh why in Twelfth Night does blank verse appear

Only in some scenes? I find this most queer.

What does this mean? Why does Wil do this to me?

I only wanted some  frivolity.


To solve this problem in which we’re caught,

Let us  see who does rhyme and who does not.

Or, at least, let’s find some good verse that’s blank:

Whether spoke by fools or men that heavily drank.

Okay. What does this mean? Well, poets in Shakespeare’s time used the heroic couplet (rhyming iambic pentameter) because they believed it to be the perfect poetic form; in fact, it was widely believed that the heroic couplet mimicked  Creation.

A few poets broke the rules by writing blank verse, meaning they wrote in iambic pentameter that did not rhyme. Some of the more traditional poets ridiculed this approach; in fact, one of the most famous pieces ever written in English, Paradise Lost, was actually mocked by other poets because “the poem rhymes not.”

Shakespeare, however, was a real rule-breaker. Sometimes, he wrote in heroic couplets. Other times, he wrote in blank verse. Yet, at other times, he dropped the poetic form entirely and opted for full sentences and paragraphs. Our goal today is to find out where and when he switches between forms, and then to suggest why he might make these switches.

  1. find examples of heroic couplets, blank verse, and full sentences/paragraphs in Act I and II
  2. identify the characters who speak in these forms
  3. identify what the characters who use a specific form have in common

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