What is a Villanelle?

An examination of the history, form and use of the Villanelle; a highly technical style of rhyming poetry.

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The Villanelle is a highly technical form of poetry built upon five tercets (groups of three lines) and a quatrain (a stanza of four lines) with a focus on repetition.

History

The Villanelle is very obviously a style of fixed form poetry; however, the word Villanelle originally meant a simple, ballad-like song. The root of Villanelle—the Italian Villano—originally meant peasant, and it’s within that word that the typical themes of the Villanelle are present; the simple or pastoral, which is given new life through the poem.

It wasn’t until the French poet Jean Passerat’s poem ‘Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)’ was published in 1606 that the form became fixed. In a way, those who followed Passerat treated the poem as a new form—Villanelle—instead of the title of the piece. These prosodists (those who study the linguistic elements of speech) popularised the form in England, where it flourished. Unusually, despite the Latin/Italian roots of the name and the French origin of the form, the majority of Villanelles have been written in English. In fact, Passerat’s poem may be the only example of the form before it crossed into English usage.

Oscar Wilde and Sir Edmund Gosse are noted as being amongst the first English practitioners of the form in the 19th Century. However, it was Dylan Thomas who wrote what may considered the most well-known Villanelle; ‘Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night.’ This poem was written during a resurgence in the form in the 1930s, spearheaded by Willaim Empson—a friend of Thomas as well as W. H. Auden.

It is perhaps because of the scope of this piece that modern poets are not limited to using the Villanelle to explore the pastoral. Instead, the Villanelle, with its repetition, is sometimes seen as the form to discuss matters of obsession.

Form

In a Villanelle, the first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately as the final line of the proceeding tercets before being used as the final couplet of the finishing quatrain.

In more visual terms, it could be expressed as:

A1
b
A2

a
b
A1

a
b
A2

a
b
A1

a
b
A2

a
b
A1
A2

In this layout, lowercase is used to denote a rhyming line and uppercase to depict a refrain, with each letter representing the rhyme itself.

T. S. Eliot opined that by using the highly technical form, the poet was able to focus on those technical elements and allow the poem to form more unconsciously—and allowed a “freer release.”

Use

The Villanelle is a perfect form for matters of fatalism (though it has been used as light verse) and as such, it attracts the outsider. The frequent repetition leads to the poetry adopting a less conventional tone—although W. H. Auden’s The Sea and The Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest used his form at times (although almost imperceptibly subtle).

Often, the Villanelle is used as an exercise, one that few poets have mastered due to its hefty constraints, though there are a handful of Villanelles (such as Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girls Love Song, one of several Villanelles written during her time at college) that are so masterful in their execution, it’s almost impossible to see the underlying form. Instead, as a reader or listener, we focus on the content and the imagery. There are many poets who, despite technical prowess, reject form as the feel it doesn’t carry over to performance, but the Villanelle, with its lyrical roots, shines through and offers a bold challenge.

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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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