Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Poetry Workshop: The Villanelle

The villanelle is one of those poem forms that when rendered well looks so effortless it’s surprising to learn how difficult they really are to write.


What is a villanelle?

This is a rather strenuous poem in that it contains nineteen lines, which amounts to five stanzas of three lines and one stanza of four lines containing four lines with two rhymes and two refrains.

Now if that isn’t complicated enough, keep this in mind: the first, and then the third lines alternate as the last lines of stanzas 2, 3, and 4, with stanza 5 ending in a couplet.  Oh, yes–the villanelle is usually written in a tetrameter, which is four feet or perhaps a pentameter, constituting of five feet

It’s best to see how a villanelle is wired together. If curious, or willing to try a villanelle with the example by Edward Arlington Robinson found at WikiHow

If you’re thinking, “Well, bosh and bother, I think I’ll pass on the villanelle,” I will leave you some well-known villanelles to contemplate.  Look for those repeating lines.  Like I mentioned earlier, a well-rendered villanelle won’t even appear to be trying so hard.  These poets make it seem rather effortless, don’t they?

Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”  is one of the most famous villanelles. To demonstrate how the villanelle works the repetition is boldface and italics. A deeper discussion can be found at this link

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.


Another villanelle example:

When I saw you last, Rose,
You were only so high;—
How fast the time goes!

Like a bud ere it blows,
You just peeped at the sky,
When I saw you last, Rose!

Now your petals unclose,
Now your May-time is nigh;—
How fast the time goes!

And a life,—how it grows!
You were scarcely so shy
When I saw you last, Rose!

In your bosom it shows
There’s a guest on the sly;
How fast the time goes!

Is it Cupid? Who knows!
Yet you used not to sigh,
When I saw you last, Rose;—
How fast the time goes!

                            –Austin Dobson

You probably found those repeating lines all on your own, didn’t you?

Here’s a more contemporary villanelle.  Do check out more of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. She’s amazing.

One Art
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

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

If you haven’t filled up on villanelles yet, I suggest clicking here and reading on a rather nice collection.

Thanks for stopping in for the workshop.  I do hope you will give the villanelle a try, and even if you don’t, I hope you’ve gain an appreciation for a fascinating poem form.



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