Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
This free script provided by
by Conrad Geller
Return to Poetry & Greeting Cards · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
Villanelles have been around for at least three hundred years. Its name derives from the Italian villa, or country house, where noblemen went to refresh themselves, perhaps dally with the locals, and imagine that they were back to nature. It seems to have grown out of native songs, with their frequent refrains and complex rhyming.
The first thing you need for a villanelle is a pair of rhyming lines that are the heart of your meaning. Here are the two key lines from The House on the Hill, by E. A. Robinson:
They are all gone away
Now put an unrhymed line between these two, to make a three-line stanza:
They are all gone away,
The next stanza begins with a line that rhymes with the basic couplet, a line that rhymes with the middle line you added, and (this is the key to this form) the first line of the couplet repeated:
Through broken walls and gray
The next stanza has a first line rhyming with "away" and "say," followed by a line rhyming with "still," and then the second line of the couplet repeated:
Nor is there one today
You see how the two lines of the base couplet become more and more meaningful with each repetition. That is why the success of the form depends so much on the careful selection of the couplet.
The poem then goes on this way for a total of five three-line stanzas, alternating the two base lines, and ends with a sixth stanza that adds the second line of the stanza one more time:
Why is it then we stray
Beautiful,as the gloomy atmosphere deepens with each repetition.
Here is another, much lighter villanelle by a more contemporary poet, Sondra Ball. Her subject is the villanelle itself, and the form is strictly adhered to, though she does allow herself some irregular rhymes:
Musical and sweet, the villanelle,
Notice, too, that in this form poets can choose longer or shorter lines. Robinson's poem has three beats to a line, while Ball's has the more traditional five (ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM).
This hardy and flexible poetic form has had a resurgence in the last hundred years. Probably the best of the poems produced during this time is Dylan Thomas's reflection on the death of his father, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. And for good measure it's probably one of the best poems of the twentieth century of any kind, period:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Conrad Geller grew up in Boston and received his education at the Boston Latin School and Harvard. He has taught in Massachusetts and New York and spent a Fulbright year teaching in London. He has published widely on literature and education. Currently he heads the Committee on Public Doublespeak of the National Council of Teachers of English. His poetry has appeared in many publications, including Bibliophilos, Insight, and Burning Cloud Review.