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Poetic Forms: The Villanelle
by Conrad Geller

Return to Poetry & Greeting Cards · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

One traditional form of poetry that can be fun to write, is technically easy compared to the most challenging forms, and often surprises the poet with its twists and discoveries, is the villanelle.

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
There is nothing more to say.

Now put an unrhymed line between these two, to make a three-line stanza:

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

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 winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

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
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

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
  Around the shrunken sill?
They are all gone away.

And our poor fancy-play
  For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
  In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

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,
like light reflected in a gentle rhyme,
moves to the ringing of a silver bell,

its form creating soft and tender spells.
Like the singing of distant silver chimes,
musical and sweet, the villanelle

flows through the heart, and builds a magic spell
from sunlight and from shadows, and, sublime,
moves to the ringing of a silver bell.

It never arcs into the sharp loud yell
of vast pipe organs. Soft its climb.
Musical and sweet, the villanelle,

like a tiny and translucent shell
catching sunlight in the summer time,
moves to the ringing of a silver bell.

Soft and gentle, tender and so frail,
like light pouring through petals of the lime,
musical and sweet, the villanelle
moves to the ringing of a silver bell.

(reprinted by permission

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,
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.

Conrad Geller's Series on Poetic Forms:

The Ballad

The Sonnet

The Triolet

The Villanelle

Copyright © 2001 Conrad Geller
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.


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