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What Is a Rondelet?

A rondelet is a poetic gem, a French form that's concise yet powerful, with a refrain that echoes like a song. Its seven lines dance with a strict rhythm and rhyme, inviting the reader into a world of emotion and imagery within a compact structure. How does this unique pattern amplify a poem's message? Let's uncover the magic together.
J.E. Holloway
J.E. Holloway

A rondelet, also called a roundelay, is a type of short poem with a strict rhyme and metrical structure. It derives from a longer type of poem called a rondeau. The name "rondelet" is a diminutive form of "rondeau" and means "little round." This type of short poem is common in later medieval poetry, particularly in France.

In a rondelet, the entire poem consists of only a single stanza. This stanza contains seven lines. In most cases, four of the lines have eight syllables, but the first, third and seventh lines are only four syllables long. This syllabic structure is common in this type of poem, but not universal; some examples contain eight syllables in every line. Some poems with five lines may be called rondelets, but the seven-line structure is, strictly speaking, the correct one.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The first, third and seventh lines of the poem not only have the same small number of syllables, but contain exactly the same words. This type of repeated line throughout the poem is called a refrain. It is a characteristic feature of the rondelet and also appears, in a somewhat different form, in the rondeau, where it occurs at the ends of the stanzas. Although the words of the refrain are always the same, some refrains vary in punctuation or other features in order to change the meaning of the line at different points in the poem.

The rhyme structure of this form of poetry is based on a simple pattern of only two repeating rhymes. In keeping with poetic convention, these are known as A and B. The first, third, fourth and seventh lines use the A rhyme, while the second, fifth and sixth lines use the B rhyme. Although more lines use the A rhyme than the B, three of these are the repeating refrain. The short but complicated rhyme and metrical structure of the rondelet is best demonstrated using an example.

The rondelet

is certainly a tricky form.

The rondelet

is written in a certain way

and if you fail to heed the norm

you'll find that you do not perform

the rondelet.

In medieval poetry, rondelets were often set to music. This may explain the variant spelling "roundelay," since "lay" usually refers to a poem intended to be sung. In the original French, however, this meaning is not present. The similarity in the pronunciation of "lay" and "-let" is coincidental.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books