Villanelle by Numbers: The Poetic Form Decoded

The Villanelle

Rage, rage against the writing formal poetry. Sometimes it feels like that, when confronting a fixed form such as the villanelle. There are a grand number of poetic forms, each with their own rules and not-quite-rules—the villanelle is no different. So, let's begin at the beginning.
Image c/o Wonton Creation


Where Did it Come From?



The villanelle ostensibly became a fixed poetry form in the hands of French poet Théodore de Banville. He took the format we now know as the villanelle from a nonce form (or, a format invented by the a poet for a specific poem) written by Jean Passerat which is sometimes called "Villanelle" and sometimes referred to by its first line "J’ay perdu ma tourterelle." Seeing the form in a foreign language may help to show its structure, so here you go:

J'ay perdu ma tourterelle:
Est-ce point celle que j'oy ?
Je veux aller après elle.

Tu regrètes ta femelle,

Hélas! aussi fay je moy:
J'ay perdu ma tourterelle.

Si ton amour est fidelle,

Aussi est ferme ma foy,
Je veux aller après elle.

Ta plaincte se renouvelle;

Tousjours plaindre je me doy:
J'ay perdu ma tourterelle.

En ne voyant plus la belle,

Plus rien de beau je ne voy;
Je veux aller après elle.

Mort que tant de fois j'appelle,

Pren ce qui se donne à toy:
J'ay perdu ma tourterelle,
Je veux aller après elle.


Why "Villanelle"?

The name Villanelle comes from the Italian Villano (or peasant) which was a style of dance-song that spoke to rustic or peasant themes. It wasn't until Jean Passerat's nonce form, but really by subsequent english poets copying the same line scheme that we have the form we now know as the Villanelle. As Amanda French opines:


        "The villanelle's origin is in sixteenth-century France: that is technically accurate,
        since Passerat's poem is organized according to the scheme commonly cited as the
        defining characteristic of the villanelle. But recent scholarship has conclusively shown
        that it was at that time a nonce form, and it remained so for many generations. There is
        simply no significant villanelle tradition in French. The villanelle form has belonged
        almost entirely to English, and its history in that language dates back only to the late
        nineteenth century. Moreover, the villanelle has never been so common in any time as it
        is now...       
           
        to claim that the nineteen-line alternating-refrain form in tercets
        that we know today as the villanelle "had its origin in" or "evolved from" the villanella is
        akin to claiming that the poetic form of Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" had its
        origin in or evolved from the music of Strauss."

And truly, if you're really really interested in villanelles, read her PhD dissertation "Refrain, Again: The Return of the Villanelle" which she has available on her homepage. While not necessarily a riveting, edge-of-your-seat read (but really, what dissertation is?), it is well researched and extremely informative.


So What is it Anyway?

Well, I guess it's about that time. As you can see from Passerat's Villanelle, there is a lot of repetition. The form is made up of six stanzas (of no fixed meter) the first five are tercets and the final stanza is a quatrain. The rhyme scheme is essentially ABA / ABA / ABA / ABA / ABA / ABAA, though, the repetition makes the final line/s of each stanza less a rhyme then a repeat of the line you'd already written. As you can see from Passerat's poem, the first stanza contains the repeating lines. The repeating structure would be seen like L1 L2 L3 / L4 L5 L1 / L6 L7 L2 / L8 L9 L1 / L10 L11 L2 / L12 L13 L1 L2. 


How's That Again?

Here's a guide you can use in case you forget either the rhyme or refrain order. The asterisks indicate stanza breaks.


R1____________________________________________________________(a)

______________________________________________________________(b)

R2____________________________________________________________(a)

*
_______________________________________________________________(a)

______________________________________________________________(b)

R1____________________________________________________________(a)

*
_______________________________________________________________(a)

______________________________________________________________(b)

R2____________________________________________________________(a)

*
_______________________________________________________________(a)

______________________________________________________________(b)

R1____________________________________________________________(a)

*
_______________________________________________________________(a)

______________________________________________________________(b)

R2____________________________________________________________(a)

*
_______________________________________________________________(a)

______________________________________________________________(b)

R1____________________________________________________________(a)

R2____________________________________________________________(a)

How Do You Make Sense of That?

Well, that's the trick of it. It's not easy. The constraint of having to repeat the same two lines four times requires the writer to pick their words very carefully. Because the final stanza of a poem is the last thing the reader will, well, read, it needs to be at least as strong as the first stanza. You don't want to leave the person kind enough to spend their precious time taking in your poem to leave with a bad aftertaste, so take extra care that it resonates. For the very reason of that stanza's gravitas, some writers choose to write the final stanza first, then reverse engineer the villanelle from there. Is that cheating? Much like crying in baseball, there is no cheating in poetry. Think of it like starting a maze from the end. Instead of being presented with a half-dozen just as likely paths, your options open up much more slowly, and you always know where you're going in the end. Of course, modern formalist poets like to toy with constraints in order to make them their own, so you'll see a lot of slight tweaks on the form.


Won't They All End Up The Same?

Quite the contrary, villanelles are actually a very fertile land to grow a poem out of. But don't just take my word for it, let's look at a couple. Why not start with the most famous of them all.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
          by Dylan Thomas

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.

**
Now, if anything could be said was cheating it's Dylan Thomas' musicality. It's just not fair. You'll see that even aside from the repetition and rhyme scheme, there is a ton of internal rhyme and assonance throughout the poem, specifically the long /A/ sound recurs again and again even aside from being repeated within the repeating line ("Rage, rage") and the end rhyme sound for all middle lines. You see it in "Age" "rAve" "wAve" "frAil" "sAng" "lAte" "thEY" and "blAze." And not as immediately noticeable, but the long /O/ sound is also a frequent sound that appears mid-line in the repeating refrain of L1 ("gO"), but also "Old" "clOse" "knOw" and "nO." I know that the musicality isn't a part of the form, but isn't it wonderful? The sounds of words can really drive a poem.

But, back to the form. As you can see, the refrained lines work tremendously well together, being a building of commands for the reader. Don't do this, Do do this. Now, I would never claim to know that Dylan Thomas started with that phrase and build the poem from that foundation, but it wouldn't be the most inefficient way to go about writing a villanelle. Let's look at another one.

The Grammar Lesson
          by Steve Kowit


A noun's a thing. A verb's the thing it does.
An adjective is what describes the noun.
In "The can of beets is filled with purple fuzz"

of and with are prepositions. The's
an article, a can's a noun,
a noun's a thing. A verb's the thing it does.

A can can roll—or not. What isn't was
or might be, might meaning not yet known.
"Our can of beets is filled with purple fuzz"

is present tense. While words like our and us
are pronouns—i.e. it is moldy, they are icky brown.
A noun's a thing; a verb's the thing it does.

Is is a helping verb. It helps because
filled isn't a full verb. Can's what our owns
in "Our can of beets is filled with purple fuzz."

See? There's almost nothing to it. Just 
memorize these rules... or write them down!
A noun's a thing, a verb's the thing it does.
The can of beets is filled with purple fuzz. 

**
Teaching a lesson is a perfect excuse for repetition. Steve Kowit discovered that the villanelle is the perfect vessel for remembering rules, such as rules of grammar. In this interview the poet recalls the inspiration for this poem. I personally love that he wrote the poem in response to the amazing poet Dorianne Laux (a former-student and good friend of his) being self-conscious of her grasp on the rules of grammar when applying for a creative writing teaching position. Kowit uses the second refrain as the subject of his lesson, the first being one of the most important rules of the lesson. Well, two, if you want to be picky.

Another villanelle that often comes up when discussing the form (even in the Steve Kowit interview) is One Art by Elizabeth Bishop. So let's go there, shall we?

One Art
          by Elizabeth Bishop

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.

**
Bishop uses multiple methods of poetic asides (shout out to Robert Brewer!) to break up the repetition of her villanelle, as well as taking the small liberty of altering the second refrain each time it recurs. What begins as:

     "to be lost that their loss is no disaster" becomes 
     "to travel. None of these will bring disaster" becomes
     "I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster" becomes
     "though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster." 

The concept of things not being a disaster is maintained, if not the exact wording. It is also expanded upon in the final line, and embellished with Bishop's command. I've always felt that the "Write it!" is reminiscent of Ranier Maria Rilke's "You must change your life" command at the conclusion of his sonnet "Archaic Torso of Apollo" but hey, maybe it's just me. 

Bishop uses slant rhymes as well as burying a few choice internal slant feminine rhymes ("lost door" is a slant of "fluster" and "and where" is a feminine rhyme for "faster"). By not sticking to exact rhymes for her end words she opens up the poem to a much larger range of vocabulary, despite maintaining feminine rhymes for the majority of the poem.

Another popular villanelle is "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke (and rightly so).

The Waking
          by Theodore Roethke

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.

**
Now, I haven't talked about enjambment yet, so now is as good a time as any. Roethke's "The Waking" is the first villanelle we've looked at that doesn't use enjambment extensively, as only one line isn't end-stopped (though Dylan Thomas' villanelle only has three. A slight aside, but Roethke picked up the form from Thomas, who was a dear friend). One factor could be that it (and the Thomas poem) are significantly older than the other poems. Roethke also breaks his lines at the caesura (or essentially the line's mid-point) with punctuation. Examples would be: "sleep, and" "feeling. What" "me, which" "Ground! I" "Tree; but" "me; so" "lovely, learn" "Steady. I" and "always. And"

Roethke, like Bishop after him, also makes small changes to the second refrain:

"I learn by going where I have to go" becomes
"And learn by going where I have to go" becomes
"And, lovely, learn by going where to go" reverts to the original
"I learn by going where I have to go."

So why the alteration of the refrains in some poems? Call it a feature of the times. To expand I'll again turn to Amanda French:

        "What distinguishes formal poetry from free verse is not anything to do with ease
        or difficulty of composition; it is everything to do with ease or difficulty of judgment. It
        is far easier to distinguish a good villanelle from a bad one than it is to distinguish a good
        free verse poem from a bad one, because the standards are clearer. Even these shift: in
        earlier periods a villanelle was judged good if it did not vary the refrains; creative and
        complex variation is now admired. Formal poetry that used slant rhyme was judged
        inferior before, now it doesn't matter."

Okay, let's look at two more villanelles quick: Sylvia Plath's "Denouement Villanelle" and then Hayden Carruth's "Saturday at the Border"

Denouement Villanelle
          by Sylvia Plath

The telegram says you have gone away
And left our bankrupt circus on its own;
There is nothing more for me to say.

The maestro gives the singing birds their pay
And they buy tickets for the tropic zone;
The telegram says you have gone away.

The clever woolly dogs have had their day
They shoot the dice for one remaining bone;
There is nothing more for me to say.

The lion and the tigers turn to clay
And Jumbo sadly trumpets into stone;
The telegram says you have gone away.

The morbid cobra's wits have run astray;
He rents his poisons out by telephone;
There is nothing more for me to say.

The colored tents all topple in the bay;
The magic saw dust writes: address unknown.
The telegram says you have gone away;
There is nothing more for me to say.

**
As with the other villanelles that we've looked at, Plath's poem ends with the refrains working together flawlessly. Now did she start with the phrase "The telegram says you have gone away; there is nothing more for me to say" and work backwards from there? I have no way of telling, but it certainly would make sense.

Hayden Carruth's villanelle "Saturday at the Border" takes the largest liberty with the form of any of the poems we've looked at, adding two extra stanzas so that each altered refrain appears an additional time.

Saturday at the Border
          by Hayden Carruth
                    "Form follows function follows form . . . , etc."
                    —Dr. J. Anthony Wadlington

Here I am writing my first villanelle
At seventy-two, and feeling old and tired—
"Hey, Pops, why dontcha give us the old death knell?"—

And writing it what's more on the rim of hell
In blazing Arizona when all I desired
Was north and solitude and not a villanelle,

Working from memory and not remembering well
How many stanzas and in what order, wired
On Mexican coffee, seeing the death knell

Of sun's salvos upon these hills that yell
Bloody murder silently to the much admired
Dead-blue sky. One wonders if a villanelle

Can do the job. Granted, old men now must tell
Our young world how these bigots and these retired
Bankers of Arizona are ringing the death knell

For everyone, how ideologies compel
Children to violence. Artifice acquired
For its own sake is war. Frail villanelle,

Have you this power? And must I go and sell
Myself? "Wow," they say, and "cool"—this hired
Old poetry guy with his spaced-out death knell.

Ah, far from home and God knows not much fired
By thoughts of when he thought he was inspired,
He writes by writing what he must. Death knell
Is what he's found in his first villanelle.

**
So, point of order, technically Carrruth didn't use refrains but what's called repetends—from repeat ends—or repeating end words (or in the case of the second 'refrain'—again the second refrain, take note dear readers—a repetending phrase in "death knell"). Carruth's villanelle is also very meta-poetic, even telegraphing the extra stanzas early on with the lines "Working from memory and not remembering well / How many stanzas and in what order". My favorite Carruth poem as it happens ("On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam"), is also very metapoetic. 

In this villanelle the poet uses enjambment almost every single line. In addition, the penultimate line recalls the final line of Roethke's "The Waking" ("I learn by going where I have to go." and "He writes by writing what he must.")

So I've Read a Few Villanelles, Now What?

Now try it yourself, of course! You've got the form guidelines up above, you've seen how musicality, enjambment and altering the refrains allows you to keep the poem from feeling too repetitious despite the repetition. You've seen that the content of the villanelle can be both humorous (as in "The Grammar Lesson" and "Saturday at the Border") or serious (as in, well, pretty much all of the other villanelles listed). You've learned that by starting with the final stanza you can assure that the refrains work well together and that the end will stick with reader.

But I Haven't Gotten My Villanelle Fix!

There is a large repository of villanelles at the blog The Villanelle to peruse. But here's one more, just for you, since you asked so nicely. Here is a much more modern sounding take on the villanelle by Timothy Liu from his awesome poetry collection "Of Thee I Sing" which appeared six years before the Barack Obama children's book of the same name.

In Hot Pursuit
          by Timothy Liu

across the Passaic's asphalt drawbridge into the heart of Kearny—
my cheeks flushed with wine—you the muse I did not choose
dragging danger down in chains across the hangdog face of me

as I followed you upriver, wanting you to cleanse me like a sari
fitted through a virgin's wedding band—why else would I cruise
across the Passaic's asphalt drawbridge into the heart of Kearny

still hot on your brand-new tail?—yes, you—my spanking Jersey
princess with a papa's pocketbook good for nothing but booze
and chains of smoke you'll drag across the hangdog face of me

until I cry myself to sleep in the priest's confessional, unworthy
of your whorish looks and your windows down blasting blues
across the Passaic's asphalt drawbridge into the heart of Kearny

with a fifth of Maker's Mark sloshing in your lap more empty
than the gas was ever gonna get when I got through—win or lose—
love but a daisy-chain dragged across the hangdog face of me

until crush felt more like crash upside another tab of Ecstasy
hurled overboard with seatbelts coming loose and pairs of shoes
spilled across Passaic asphalt straight into the heart of Kearny
where danger dragged its tread across the hangdog face of me.

**
One of the first things you'll notice is the long lines. Also Liu uses more modern verbiage, citing a specific brand of liquor (Maker's Mark), drugs and utilizing colloquial language. He propels his lines by using traditional musicality like the alliteration of "Dragging Danger Down... hangDog" or "sPanking... Princess with a PaPa's Pocketbook" and assonance like "book/good" or "loose/shoes" even outside of the refrains. 

And then, again the second refrain is the place where the poet chooses to alter the repetition. I don't have a solid answer for why this choice is seen again and again, other than speculation and tradition. The villanelle form is sort of seen as a rite of passage to many writers, or, to once more return to that Villaness Amanda French: "Almost everyone nowadays seems to have written one or two villanelles (not usually more) just to see if they can, just to show that they can, just to see what happens."

So, have at it—you writers you. Write those villanelles.  Join your poet-brethren. Embrace the constraint.


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