The villanelle is a beautiful and haunting form that began in French and took on its present shape in the mid-nineteenth century, according to Amanda French. It’s a demanding form in many ways. The first and third lines of the villanelle have to repeat throughout the poem in a set order. If the poet uses rhyme, only two rhymes are permitted in the entire poem.
The villanelle was originally a song form for country dances. The name derives from the Italian villano, which means “peasant” or “boor.” But there is nothing boorish about this form. It is very much like a country dance, though, with its deliberate repetitions and variations. Folk dances often take the participants through a series of steps that mirror one another from different angles and with different partners, but then wind up more or less where they started.
|French country dance|
Here’s a video of a charming traditional French folk dance, for example, that has a theme and variations pattern similar to a villanelle. The pattern of the villanelle makes much more sense when you think about its origins in folk dance.
The Academy of American Poets website describes the form this way:
“The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.”
Of course, slight variations on the repeated lines are allowed, even encouraged.
You’ve undoubtedly seen villanelles, even if you weren’t aware that was the form you were reading. Some of the most famous villanelles in English are “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”
The most challenging aspect of the villanelle, from my standpoint, is that the refrains, the two lines that repeat, have to occur four times each in the space of the poem’s nineteen lines. Not only that, the two refrains have to rhyme.
One approach to these limitations is to choose refrains that are fairly general, and can reoccur in several contexts without stretching their meaning. W.H. Auden, for example, in his villanelle “If I Could Tell You,” begins his poem:
Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.
Lines as general as “Time will say nothing but I told you so,” and “If I could tell you I would let you know,” can make sense in many contexts, and Auden ingeniously creates several settings for these lines in his poem.
|W. H. Auden|
That flexibility is a plus of a vanilla refrain. On the other hand, choosing fairly neutral refrains means that eight of your poem’s nineteen lines are something of a throwaway in terms of their poetic energy.
To me, a more exciting solution to the villanelle’s restrictions is to pick two absolutely killer lines that bear repeating four times each. Dylan Thomas accomplishes this brilliantly:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
In the first four words of the poem, he strategically violates the rules of grammar by using “gentle” instead of the adverb “gently” to modify the verb “go.” He also creates a sonorous but not predictable alliteration with “go,” “gentle,” and “good.” He embeds a paradox in just eight words: the “good night” is actually something to be resisted.
In Dylan Thomas’s second refrain, the repetition of the powerful word “Rage” at the start is unforgettable. It also adds assonance to the word “rave” in the previous line. “Light” and “night” are a dynamic pairing for the two main rhymes in the poem.
The problem with the killer refrain is that it has to be complex enough—linguistically and emotionally—to merit all those repetitions.
Keep in mind that once you’ve written the first tercet, you’ve also written the last two lines of your villanelle, so plan ahead. Your two refrains have to work not only as a beginning but as an ending, and they have to continually surprise the reader. Easier said than done!
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies with his villanelle, “Film Noir”
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe
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Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka, The Villanelle
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