The “Villain”elle

Okay, so it’s called the villanelle… without the villain, but I wanted to discuss this form of poetry because it can feel like a villain. I find this form hard to write and I have a lot of respect for anyone who is able to write one that works. I have written several villanelles, but I think only one of them was a success. What makes this form so difficult to write is the rhyme scheme is interwoven with refrains (and yes plural… REFRAINS). This creates a complexity that the writer pursues in 19 lines. Comprised of 5 tercets and a concluding quatrain, the refrains alternately repeat as the last line of each stanza, and together as the last 2 lines of the final stanza. By having 8 lines of your poem comprised of the same 2 lines creates a unique challenge. The writer should strive to have those lines read both fresh and reminiscent. The repetition is a great device, if it succeeds.

Villanelle Form

1 Refrain 1 (A1)
2 (B)
3 Refrain 2 (A2)

4 (A)
5 (B)
6 Refrain 1 (A1)

7 (A)
8 (B)
9 Refrain 2 (A2)

10 (A)
11 (B)
12 Refrain 1 (A1)

13 (A)
14 (B)
15 Refrain 2 (A2)

16 (A)
17 (B)
18 Refrain 1 (A1)
19 Refrain 2 (A2)

The Line number is signified by the numbers on the left, 19 total. Each break represents a new stanza: the first 5 stanzas are tercets (meaning comprised of 3 lines each) and the last stanza is a quatrain (comprised of 4 lines). The “A’s” and “B’s” throughout the poem represent where there should be rhymes. All “A” lines rhyme with “A” lines and all “B” lines rhyme with “B” lines. While dissecting poems, in order to discover the rhyme scheme you may use as many letters to signify new rhymes as you need, here there are only 2. The last detail for the villanelle is that there are 2 refrains: Refrain 1 (A1) and Refrain 2 (A2). These full lines repeat where shown. Notice that the refrain titles include “A” which signifies that both refrains should rhyme not only with each other but with all other “A” lines as well.

An Example

Below is a famous villanelle, Do not go gentle into that good night, by Dylan Thomas. Notice the form and the rhyme scheme as well as the refrains.

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.

The first refrain, “Do not go gentle into that good night” seems like a command whenever it is repeated, however, the writer is able to change that between lines 5 and 6 where instead of a command it becomes an action. The “they” from line 5 carries down to the refrain (line 6) and makes it so it reads “they/Do not go gentle in that good night.” This a great example of servicing the lines both fresh and reminiscent.

If you are brave, try one for yourself. They are difficult but rewarding, even if unsuccessful. 🙂


One thought on “The “Villain”elle

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