Definition of Villanelle

A villanelle is a poetic form with nineteen lines and a strict pattern of repetition and a rhyme scheme. Each villanelle is comprised of five tercets (i.e., a three-line stanza) followed by one quatrain (a stanza with four lines). The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated in an alternating pattern as the final line of each next tercet; those two repeated lines then form the final two lines of the entire poem. The rhyme scheme calls for those repeating lines to rhyme, and for the second line of every tercet to rhyme. Thus, the rhyme scheme looks like this: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2. Though the structure may sound complicated, in practice it is easy to see how the rules work.

The word villanelle comes originally from the Italian word villano, meaning “peasant.” The villanellas and villancicos of the Renaissance period were Italian and Spanish songs made for dancing, which featured the pastoral theme appropriate for peasant dances. The contemporary definition of villanelle thus has changed quite a bit since its conception as a verse without strict rhyme scheme or repetition.

Common Examples of Villanelle

The villanelle is a highly structured poetic form, and thus there are no examples of villanelle from outside of poetry. However, some villanelles have become famous enough that some of their lines have entered public consciousness. For example, Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a villanelle example, and the lines that he repeats in the poem are quite famous:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Significance of Villanelle in Literature

The villanelle is known as a fixed verse form. Other examples of fixed verse forms include the haiku, sonnet, and sestina. It is believed that the French poet Théodore de Banville defined the form in the late nineteenth century, though villanelles became much more popular in England than it ever did in France. Though the form is quite strict in its rules, it is not all that difficult to write a villanelle; indeed, eight of the nineteen lines are repetitions. The difficulty is in making this repetition seem new or important each time. Many poets have played just a bit with the repetition of lines so that there is a slight change, either in the insertion or deletion of a word, or in changing the tense or punctuation of the repeated lines. The function of the repetition often can seem a bit obsessive, and, indeed, many villanelles center around a central issue a poet is trying to work out in a manner that sounds circular and obsessive.

Examples of Villanelle in Literature

In order to understand the way a villanelle works, we have reprinted the following three villanelle examples in their entirety. Notice the rhyme scheme and function of the repeated lines.

Example #1

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(“Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas)

No article on villanelles would be complete without printing the most famous example of a villanelle of all time: Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Unlike some other authors, Thomas chose not to alter his repeating lines whatsoever, and we see them reproduced exactly the same in each repetition. The lines in and of themselves are very powerful, and their repetition serves only to make Thomas’s forceful message that much stronger.

Example #2

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

(“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop’s famous example of villanelle, “One Art,” is slightly looser with the rules, though she does stick to them fairly closely. For example, the lines that end with the word “disaster” have only that final word in common, and are quite different leading up to the word. Bishop is also a bit freer with the rhyming words, choosing half rhyme rather than perfect rhyme in some cases. For example, she choose near rhymes for “disaster” such as “fluster,” “last, or,” and “gesture.” Similarly “intent” and “continent” have the same final vowel and consonant combination, yet the stress pattern of “continent” makes it not a perfect rhyme for “intent.” Still, Bishop has chosen the villanelle form for a reason. She builds up to the final quatrain with insisting that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master,” yet it’s clear that there is some verbal irony here and that it is indeed difficult to lose a loved one.

Example #3

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

(“The Waking” by Theodore Roethke)

Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking” is another famous and lovely example of a villanelle. He is somewhere between Thomas and Bishop in terms of how closely he sticks to the villanelle rules. Generally his lines rhyme with either “slow” or “fear,” though he also chooses near rhymes of “you,” “how,” “do” and “there,” “stair,” and “air.” He also slightly varies the second repeating line of “I learn by going where I have to go.”

Test Your Knowledge of Villanelle

1. Which of the following poetic forms is the correct villanelle definition?
A. Three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5.
B. Fourteen lines with three quatrains and a final couplet with an alternating rhyme scheme.
C. Nineteen lines with five tercets and a final quatrain with two repeating lines.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following subjects would a contemporary villanelle be most likely to deal with?
A. Obsession
B. Pastoral themes
C. Obscene humor

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following is true about villanelles?
A. The repeating lines must never change in any way.
B. Every line must rhyme (or be a near rhyme) with either the first or second line of the villanelle.
C. Early examples of villanelles were written with more structure than contemporary examples.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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