What Is a Villanelle?

A villanelle is a lyric poem with a tight rhyme scheme and repeating lines. Stemming from the Italian word villano, meaning “peasant,” villanelles evolved from Renaissance dancing songs into their current 19-line form. Although the theme of villanelles was originally pastoral, the poem has branched out to become a formal exercise that few poets have been able to master.

What makes the villanelle so difficult is its short length in combination with the repeating lines. The lines “hem in” the subject of the poem like a crossword puzzle, forcing the poet to advance meaning in the few new expressions that are available. It is an especially challenging exercise for the beginning poet.

How Do You Identify a Villanelle?

A Villanelle is composed of five tercets (stanzas of three lines) and a terminal quatrain. The rhyme scheme is ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA. The first and third lines of the opening tercet repeat in an alternating pattern until the poem reaches the quatrain, where these two lines are placed together at the end.

Take a look at the following villanelle by Ernest Christopher Dowson:

“Villanelle Of His Lady’s Treasures”

I took her dainty eyes, as well     A
As silken tendrils of her hair:      B
And so I made a Villanelle!           A

I took her voice, a silver bell,       A
As clear as song, as soft as prayer;  B
I took her dainty eyes as well.         A

It may be, said I, who can tell,      A
These things shall be my less despair?  B
And so I made a Villanelle!     A

I took her whiteness virginal      A
And from her cheek two roses rare:  B
I took her dainty eyes as well.    A

I said: “It may be possible      A
Her image from my heart to tear!”   B
And so I made a Villanelle.     A

I stole her laugh, most musical:    A
I wrought it in with artful care;     B
I took her dainty eyes as well;       A
And so I made a Villanelle.             A


Examples of Villanelles

Villanelle Example 1. Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” is perhaps the most famous example of a villanelle.

Villanelle Example 2. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” uses slant rhyme in order to meet the strict requirements of the form.

Villanelle Example 3. “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” by Sylvia Plath, brilliantly unleashes the obsessive quality of the form’s repeating lines.

Villanelle Example 4. W.H. Auden’s “Villanelle” begins with the line “Time can say nothing but I told you so.”

Villanelle Example 5. “Villanelle for an Anniversary,” by Seamus Heaney, is an elegy to John Harvard, who founded the famous Boston university.


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