In this article, we look at a structured poem with humble beginnings: villanelles.
This is part 3 of a continually evolving section on poetry. If you’re looking on the methodology of how to start working with nature to craft poetry, click on the link here. If you’re looking for a form of poetry a little less “technical,” try my article on haiku and free verse.
With such a fancy, refined name, it has to be something either very hoity-toity or foreign, right?
Yes and no.
As defined at poets.org, the villanelle
…is a highly structured poem made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain, with two repeating rhymes and two refrains.
For someone not familiar with poetry terms, this sounds like a foreign language. For someone familiar with musical terms, it makes a little more sense…and for good reason. Villanelles started out as Renaissance-era Italian and Spanish dance-songs. The Italian translation for “villano” is peasant. Therefore, villanellas were songs sung by the lower-class as entertainment.
French poets adapted these songs into poems they called villanelles. While there was a rough “form” to the songs, the focus was on the subject: pastoral or rustic themes. This form of poetry, however, didn’t really catch on until it was written in English. English poets likely defined the form, but eventually broke with the pastoral and rustic constraints and used it for all manner of subjects.
We’re pulling it back towards simplicity and focusing on nature.
Let’s break this definition down so it makes a little more sense.
- A tercet is a 3-line stanza (group of lines) connected by rhyme.
- A quatrain is a 4-line stanza often containing rhymes.
- Refrains are repeated lines, like those found in songs.
So villanelles are 19 lines long- 5 tercets followed by a quatrain (5×3+4). There are 2 end-rhyme sounds, and two of the lines (the first and third) are repeated. This is commonly written as:
A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2
Capital letters represent the repeated lines (A1, A2) and the lowercase letters represent unrepeated, rhyming lines (a, b). Note that the repeated lines all have the same rhyme and rhyme with unrepeated lines. The second rhyme is all unrepeated lines.
The poem has 19 lines, but you’re only writing 13 “original” lines. The other 6 are refrains of the first and third lines.
Take a look at the most well-known modern villanelle and compare the poetic notation to the poem.
Do not go gentle into that good night
by Dylan ThomasDo 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 theyDo not go gentle into that good night.Good men, the last wave by, crying how brightTheir 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 sightBlind 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.
Thomas’ refrains are Do not go gentle into that good night (A1) and Rage, rage against the dying of the light (A2). These two lines are repeated in lines 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, and 19 and use the -ight rhyme. They also rhyme with lines 4, 7, 10, 13, and 16 (a). Lines 2, 5, 8, 11, 14, and 17 (b) use the -ay rhyme and are all “original” lines. Thomas kept all of his lines to 10 syllables to make them flow.
The villanelle is notoriously difficult to write. Though Thomas doesn’t do it in Do not go gentle into that good night, poets sometimes alter the refrains in the quatrain. While it breaks form, it can create more of an impact. Or at least more sense.
Without going into set-ups and specific functions of stanzas, that’s the basics of villanelles.
Lines 1 and 3 are repeated, so they are the most important. Focus on them. Consider how these two lines sound together because the last lines- lines 18 and 19- are going to be your impact lines. Write the rest of the poem around these two lines.
This form is unmetered (no set number of syllables/accents). Most villanelles written in the 19th century had 6 or 8 syllables, and modern ones often have 10 syllables. Since there is no “rule,” feel free to use any number of syllables. But for the sake of flow, try to keep all lines equal. This should keep it from abruptly pausing.
But, hey, if it works to break this unwritten rule, do it! It’s your poem.
When you’re comfortable with lines 1 and 3, move onto line 2. This is a transition line. This line, although not repeated, is also important, as it sets up the rest of your rhyme scheme.
When you have your first stanza, move onto the next. Continue to go into more detail and pay close attention to the rhyme scheme (lines 4 and 5 rhyme with lines 1 and 2 respectively). Drop in your refrains, and feel free to connect the lines in creative ways.
Whenever I write end-rhyme poetry, I make lists of rhyme words. It’s a handy reference, and it helps me craft lines that make sense. Sometimes, though, you look at your list and realize that using any of them really stretches the poem out. Then I go to a rhyming dictionary (rhymer.com is a great resource). If that fails, I rewrite the original lines…or start over.
When you have the poem down and in form, read it aloud to hear how it sounds. If you used your rhymes and refrains right, it should “sing.”
A Final Word
While it may seem easier to follow a structure, villanelles are often as difficult as unstructured poems. The structure may give you a form and a general “sound” of a poem, but it’s the word-choice and message that decides whether or not a poem works. Even if you follow the rules exactly, sometimes the poem just sounds wrong.
If the villanelle doesn’t work, try something else.
Note: The crafting of villanelles is hard, so save it for your more advanced writers. If you want a less-experienced writer to try it, you will need to work closely with them. Even if they can’t get it, the exercise in rhyming is great practice!
If you need a little more help with how this all goes down, check out my example link on how I do it.
Want more? Here is a list resources to help you write your own nature poetry. Some of them are all about poetry forms, some of them are all about devices.
- List of 100 Poetic Forms for Poets – Writer’s Digest
- A Beginner’s Guide to the Different Types of Poems – Book Riot
- Glossary of Poetic Terms – Academy of American Poets
- Nine Different Types of Poems (for kids) – Penguin
- 55 Types of Poetry Forms – Poem of Quotes
- The 20 Poetic Devices You Must Know – PrepScholar
- Elements of Poetry – Literacy Ideas