So You Want to Write A Villanelle

Okay so maybe you don’t want to write a villanelle, but that’s only because you don’t know what a villanelle is yet. But once you do know what a villanelle is, you’ll totally want to write one because it is a fun form to write.

In 16th century Italy and Spain, dance songs known as villanella or villancico were peasant tunes without any fixed form. French poets started to write poems called villancelle that again did not follow any fixed rhymes or schemes shortly thereafter.

The first villanelle with a fixed structural form, Jean Passerat’s Villanelle also known as J’ay perdu ma tourterelle, came about in the late 19th century. While the villanelle started in France, it never really caught on there but American poets claimed the poem form and are most known for executing its rigid structural form.

One of the most famous practitioners of the villanelle is Dylan Thomas, with his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

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 that you’re familiar with the form, let’s talk about the specific features that make the villanelle a villanelle.

The villanelle has five stanzas with three lines each with a final stanza consisting of four lines. The total amount of stanzas in a villanelle is six with a total of nineteen lines. The first line of the first stanza, which we will call A1, and the last line of the stanza, which we shall call A2, rhyme and repeat at a set pattern throughout the poem.

In a villanelle there are only two rhymes – the A rhyme that matched with the A1 and A2 rhyme that starts in the first stanza and repeats throughout the poem and the B rhyme, which only appears once per stanza and rhymes with all the other second lines. The overall rhyme scheme of the poem is A1/B/A2 A/B/A1 A/B/A2 A/B/A1 A/B/A2 A/B/A1/A2.

This specific villanelle uses pentameter, but other villanelles have used trimeter or tetrameter in the past. One Art by Elizabeth Bishop uses pentameter but sticks on an extra foot in the A lines of the poem.

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 also takes leeway with the A1 line of the poem, keeping the end rhyme but varying the line before the statement of “disaster.”

Now that I’ve told you about the form, I’d like to personally state that writing a villanelle is a whole lot of fun. The repetitive structure and two-rhyme scheme of the poem presents a challenge, but the overall effect of the repetitiveness of the form makes the effort to get it right worth it. How do I know? I’ve written one.

Hey, I didn’t think it was awful.

My villanelle is called Women at War and, well, you’ll just have to read it I guess.

Apathy is no more; it’s time to fight,
The rights women have should not go awry,
Rage, rage against the taking of our rights.

Foremothers fought from first dawn until night,
Because no one would listen to their cry –
Apathy is no more; it’s time to fight.

Grandmothers carried a beckon of light,
The females before them died to stand by,
Rage, rage against the taking of our rights.

Mothers sung songs of sovereignty in sight,
Mute hearts listened and songs started to die,
Apathy is no more; it’s time to fight.

Women across time have tried to unite,
But their arms reached out to find no reply,
Rage, rage against the taking of our rights.

And you, my sisters, watching our plight,
Freedom and death are things we cannot deny,
Apathy is no more; it’s time to fight,
Rage, rage against the taking of our rights.

I followed the more rigid restrictions that Dylan Thomas followed in his villanelle. The rigid repetitiveness helps create a rhetoric within the poem that builds through repetition, in my opinion, but others, such as Philip K. Jason, think the repetition of the form illustrates obsession. Stephen Fry feels the repetitiveness lends itself to a “rueful, ironic reiteration of pain or fatalism.”

The repetition of the form is a great throwback to the villanelle’s lyrical beginnings as peasant dance song from Italy and Spain and the form’s repetitive nature is now open to reader interpretation.

So now that you’ve seen a few villanelles, heard from some critics about the rigid repetitiveness of the form, and know the basic structure, you’re ready to try your hand at the form. Enjoy!

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