What Is a Villanelle?

A villanelle is a poetic dance of words, weaving a tapestry of repeated lines and rhymes across nineteen lines and five tercets, culminating in a final quatrain. This intricate form, known for its haunting refrains, has captivated poets and readers alike with its musicality and emotional depth. How might its structure enhance the themes you cherish in poetry?
L. Whitaker
L. Whitaker

A villanelle is a fixed poetic form composed of 19 lines with two rhyme sounds throughout, in which line 1 of the poem is repeated in lines 6, 12, and 18, and line 3 is repeated in lines 9, 15, and 19. The poem as a whole is divided into stanzas of three lines each, which are called tercets, until the final four-line stanza or quatrain. Each repeated line, or refrain, alternately closes a tercet until the final quatrain, in which the two refrains act as a closing couplet. With a rhyme scheme in a pattern of ABA in the tercets and ABAB in the quatrain, the poem's structure is circular rather than linear. The most well-known example of a villanelle is Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, written by Dylan Thomas.

As a classic form, the villanelle began in medieval times as an unstructured ballad. In the Renaissance, a popular work by Jean Passerat about a lost turtledove first used the strict structure commonly associated with this poetic form. Passerat's work became better known in the 19th century. The word villanelle is a French variation on the Italian word for "peasant," as this type of poetry was initially associated with pastoral or country themes.

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

Most villanelles have been written by English-speaking poets. Writers who have contributed to this form include Edwin Arlington Robinson, Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden, and Theodore Roethke. Contemporary villanelles are often written using iambic pentameter, and the refrain lines are sometimes slightly altered or differently punctuated as the stanzas of the villanelle progress toward the end quatrain.

One modern example of a villanelle is Theodore Roethke's poem The Waking. In this poem, the refrain lines as employed in the end couplet are "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I learn by going where I have to go." The end rhymes used for the first rhyme sound are: slow, go, know, you, how, do. The second rhyme sound, used for the middle portions of the stanzas, is: fear, ear, there, stair, air, near.

The villanelle is one type of fixed form, in which the poem must follow prescribed elements like rhythm, meter, or pattern. Two other classic fixed verse forms are the sonnet and the sestina. Sonnets can follow the Italian or English variation. A sestina has certain words that are repeated at specified locations within the poem.

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