The function of refrain in poetry can vary depending on the purpose of a poet, but it is often used to create emphasis and rhythm. Refrain is the use of repetition within a poem, usually as a line or stanza that is repeated throughout a work, often at the beginning or end of each stanza. A poet can use refrain to emphasize a certain point or idea, as the repetition makes a concept easier for a reader to identify. Refrain can also be used to create or enhance rhythm within a poem or as part of a rigid structure in certain types of poems.
Writers can use refrain in poetry for a variety of reasons, though emphasis through repetition is one of the most common functions it can serve. When a particular line or word is repeated throughout a poem, especially in a place of prominence such as the beginning or end of a sentence, it becomes more noticeable for a reader. A poet can use a line like “and then she walked away” only one time in a poem and the reader might recognize a sense of loss or abandonment. If every stanza of a poem ends with “and then she walked away,” then the idea of being left behind or of someone leaving becomes far more prominent and central to the poem.
Refrain in poetry can also be used to create rhythm within a poem through the repetition. The use of a single line throughout a poem often creates a natural rhythm as a reader tends to stop each time he or she confronts this repetition. A poet can also use the repeated line to control meter throughout the work, by virtue of the more structured style that refrain in poetry naturally creates. Even in a blank or free verse poem, repetition of one line creates a sense of meter between those repeated lines.
There are some types of poems in which this repetition is essential to the very structure of the poem. Villanelles, for example, use refrain in poetry to create ongoing repetition throughout the poem. Three-line stanzas, called tercets, are used in a villanelle with the first and third lines of the beginning tercet being repeated as the last line of the four stanzas that follow. The final stanza of a villanelle is a quatrain, or four-line stanza, that repeats those two lines once more. One of the most famous and eloquent examples of a modern villanelle is the poem Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night by Dylan Thomas.