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What Is the Function of Refrain in Poetry?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

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.

Using refrain in poetry can make a reader stop every time they see this repetition.
Using refrain in poetry can make a reader stop every time they see this repetition.

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.

Discussion Comments


@pastanaga - I know that that kind of song and poem is still popular among some cultures and you probably can find examples if you go online.

I've found that the refrain gets used a lot in jam poetry, actually, as saying something multiple times not only gives it emphasis, it allows a pause in which the audience can rest without having to stop the poem itself.

It can be difficult to take in all the words that are used in a poem that is read aloud, so a repeated line can be invaluable.


@KoiwiGal - I like it when refrains are used in a kind of bawdy poem that was more popular a few decades ago but which you can still find today. They could sometimes use that changing meaning as well and sometimes the refrain would change slightly depending on the position of the poem, but usually this was in order to add some kind of ribald humor to the line.

I imagine these poems come from when people would sing drinking songs that had a lot of coarse humor in them and they would expect to be entertained with poetry in the same vein.

I think it's a shame that it's not more popular today as I could imagine someone reading out a really good, clever poem of this sort on Youtube and making a viral hit with it.


I particularly like it when a poem uses the same refrain every time but somehow manages to give the same line a different meaning. If you take the example from the article "and then she walked away," that line could have different meanings depending on where in the poem it is placed.

Perhaps at the start it was used in a negative way to call shame upon a mother who walked away from her child.

Perhaps then it was used to show the same mother and how she walked away in order to give her child a better life (perhaps she was a teenage mother, or a drug addict). This new meaning could be revealed at the end of the poem.

Doing this makes the person reevaluate their reactions to the previous words and perhaps makes them think, which might be the objective of the poet.

If nothing else, it adds emphasis to the central meaning of the poem and it's clever, which is why I like it as a technique.

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    • Using refrain in poetry can make a reader stop every time they see this repetition.
      By: vpardi
      Using refrain in poetry can make a reader stop every time they see this repetition.