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Poetry Knowledge Zone > Class 8 Share This Page
Villanelle
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Sometimes when you pick up your pen to write, you are assailed by a haunting thought. A single thought or two, which you feel can form the basis of a beautiful poetry. The central idea of the poem is a single thought but there are so many thoughts which lead from it or boil down to it. At such times, the form that can most beautifully show off your work is a villanelle. 

What Is A Villanelle?

Well, Villanelle is a French word, derived from the original word in Italian, villanella. Villanella is believed derived from the Latin villano (farmhand), which is in turn derived from the Latin villa (farm).

It is a verse form consisting of five tercets and a final quatrain, which has only two end rhymes, repeating the first and third lines of the first stanza alternately in the following stanzas, and combining those two refrain lines into the final couplet in the quatrain. A villanelle needs no particular meter or line length. It is a terribly obsessive form of poetry which hinges on a single thought which is repeated through out the poem. 

A good example of a villanelle is the following one written by Dylan Thomas titled "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night". It is one of the most famous villanelles and is a great example of how villanelle repetition works. Carefully note the rhyme scheme and the refrains. Using a villanelle is the best and easiest way to explain its structure.

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.

Before we discuss more about the technical aspects of the villanelle lets delve a little into the history of the villanelle.

The word villanelle, or villenesque, was used toward the end of the sixteenth century to describe literary imitations of rustic songs. Such villanelles were alike in exhibiting a refrain which testified to their ultimate popular origin. The villanelle was, in a sense, invented by Jean Passerat (1534-1602) whose poem about a turtle dove is acknowledged as the first modern villanelle.  In the nineteenth century, English poets including Oscar Wilde wrote villanelle. More recently, many American and British poets (including Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas) have written Villanelles. Usually they vary the content of the repeated lines, to soften the strict repetition of the traditional form.

The mark of a villanelle, though, is the repetition of the first and third lines throughout the poem. The first line is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and as the penultimate line of the final quatrain. The third line is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas, and as the last line of the concluding quatrain (and thus the last line of the poem). Line length, meter, etc. will vary. The meter and length of the line is not part of the form - however, usually the lines are of approximately the same length, whatever the length for a particular villanelle may be. Some poets will vary the repeated lines (see Bishop's "One Art" and others will repeat them exactly each time (which is the norm) or vary only the punctuation.

Form Of A Villanelle

Conventionally a villanelle looks like this.

A1 (refrain)
b
A2 (refrain)

a
b
A1 (refrain)

a
b
A2 (refrain)

a
b
A1 (refrain)

a
b
A2 (refrain)

a
b
A1
A2 (refrain)

The refrains in a villanelle do the following:

They form the heart or central idea of the poem and reflect its emotions.Due to their repetitive nature, refrains act like a mantra or a chant and get imprinted in the readers mind.Refrains are the extroverted lines of the poem. They make all the noise and draw attention to themselves.The emotion of the refrain calls attention to the importance of its repetitiveness.Refrains are a complete thought or statement or unit of speech.Refrains help plot or plan the villanelle as each refrain contains the plot structure of the villanelle. They contain the epiphany of the villanelle.

Specific detail refrains are surprising easier to write the Villanelle too. You will find sentences matching them. The intensity of the detail supplies the connectors to sentence before and after while broad general refrains fit in well and allow the reader to connect to the tercet lines.

The non refrain lines in the poem build upon the theme set by the refrain lines. Villanelle is one form of poetry which makes maximum use of enjambments to smoothen the flow of the poem. Consider this poem by W.H Auden titled 'If I could Tell You'. It is one of my personal favorites in villanelles.

Time can say nothing but I told you so,       ---------- Enjambment
Time only knows the price we have to pay;  ---------- Enjambment
If I could tell you, I would let you know.      ---------- End ' stopped

If we should weep when clowns put on their show, - Enjambment
If we should stumble when musicians play,    --------- Enjambment
Time can say nothing but I told you so.         --------- End ' stopped

There are no fortunes to be told, although    --------- Enjambment
Because I love you more than I can say,        --------- Enjambment
If I could tell you, I would let you know.       ---------- End ' stopped

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow, - Enjambment
There must be reasons why the leaves decay; ---------- Enjambment
Time can say nothing but I told you so.          ---------- End ' stopped

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,            ---------- Enjambment
The vision seriously intends to stay;               ---------- Enjambment
If I could tell you, I would let you know.        ---------- End ' stopped

Suppose the lions all get up and go,              ---------- Enjambment
And all the brooks and soldiers run away?     ---------- End ' stopped
Time can say nothing but I told you so.          ---------- End ' stopped
If I could tell you, I would let you know.         ---------- End ' stopped

I would say this is one poem which makes very good use of enjambments and end stopped sentences to smoothen the flow of the poem. In fact the refrains change from enjambments to end stopped sentences to keep the flow of the poem smooth. For example Line 1 which is an enjambment changes to an end-stopped sentence at Line 6 as here it is a paragraph ender.

Take for example stanza 5

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,    ------ Enjambment
The vision seriously intends to stay;        ------ Enjambment
If I could tell you, I would let you know. ------ End ' stopped

Each of the lines deal with a different subject and hence could have been end-stopped sentences as they complete a thought. However having them enjambed increases the ease of reading, smoothens the poems and makes it more effective. 

To better understand this, see the poem after deleting all the refrain lines, it would look like this:

Time only knows the price we have to pay;

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;

Suppose all the lions get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;

These are not exactly independent thoughts but beautiful justifications or support system for the refrain lines. The refrain would collapse without them.

Writing a villanelle

It is important to know which thoughts can be converted into a villanelle and which can't be. To write a good villanelle you need to have a solid base to make the refrain and enough thoughts to lead into the refrain.

The repetition in a Villanelle made this form popular with audiences. The repetition allowed the listener to catch the poem more clearly at first hearing or first reading.
A writer of a Villanelle can use the repetition to delve more deeply into her material. Each stanza can revise, amplify, and show more facets of what the poet feels.

I would suggest using a blank form to write your villanelle in the beginning. Frame your central thought and write them as two refrains and then write down your refrains in a paper.

Line 1 Refrain 1
Line 2
Line 3 Refrain 2

Line 4
Line 5
Line 6 Refrain 1

Line 7
Line 8
Line 9 Refrain 2

Line 10
Line 11
Line 12 Refrain 1

Line 13
Line 14
Line 15 Refrain 2

Line 16
Line 17
Line 18 Refrain 1
Line 19 Refrain 2

Make sure that the refrains read well consecutively as they would form the last two lines of your poetry. Once you have your refrains down, start adding the lines that build upon them. Make sure that the rhyming and the refrains don't sound forced, it should sound natural and flow.

A system I use when writing a villanelle is picking a villanelle and superimposing my villanelle on it line by line. This way I don't loose track of the rhyming technique and the refrains.

Villanelles are a rich form of poetry and have many variation like the decanelle and terzanelle.

Many modern poets also uses slight modifications in the refrains and rhyming scheme to make it easier but a traditional villanelle is a delight to read and write once you get the hang of it. It can be a challenge and the first few villanelles you write may be pitifully lacking but keep at it and after a few false tries you will get there. 

Image (c) Gettyimges.com    
Smitha Chakravarthula
May 09,2004
Views: 6111

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