What Is Refrain?
Refrain is the repetition of a key line or phrase within a song or poem. The term comes from the Old French, refraindre, which means "to repeat." In music, another word for refrain is the chorus. The repeating lines of a song give it structure and continuity, in addition to making it easier to memorize.
For instance, Lea Michele’s "Cannonball" is structured around key refrains:
I was scared to death I was losing my mind"
"I’ll fly like a cannonball, like a cannonball, like a cannonball
I’ll fly, I’ll fly, I’ll fly like a cannonball"
These repeating phrases help to fuel the song’s intensity and reinforce its theme.
How Do You Identify Refrain in Writing?
The refrain in poetry works the same way as refrain in song does, though poems typically have a subtlety that song lyrics lack. That is because songs use musical accompaniment to impart texture and richness, while poems, on the other hand, only have the music of language to create depth. Thus, it can be harder to find the refrain in a poem, and not every poem has a refrain. Some poems simply use devices like assonance, slant rhyme, and consonance to create an internal structure.
Some formal poems incorporate refrain into a fixed structure:
- Villanelles are 19 line poems that alternate the first and third line of the opening stanza in the last line of each subsequent stanza. The final stanza closes with the first and third lines again.
- Sestinas repeat key words in each stanza at the end of the line. This use of refrain also ensures that there will be a fixed rhyme scheme for the poem.
Poems do not have to have a fixed structure or even a rhyme scheme to contain refrain, however. Reading aloud can help you to find repeating words that you might overlook with a casual reading.
Examples of Refrain
1. "And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep" is the refrain that concludes Robert Frost’s poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."
2. Walt Whitman’s poem "Oh Captain, My Captain!" uses refrain throughout to reinforce its elegaic theme: "O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;/
Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills." Notice the repetition of "captain," "rise up," and "for you" in just these two lines.
3. "Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’" is the refrain many people remember from Poe’s "The Raven," even though Poe repeat several key words multiple times within the poem.
4. Taylor Swift’s 2015 blockbuster hit, "Shake it Off," contains repeating words even with the refrain, making it very hard to "shake off."
5. Dylan Thomas’ "Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night" uses the villanelle form to repeat key refrains about death, old age, and the human spirit.
(View all literary devices)