English Literature


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The Villanelle: A Melodic Type of Poem

The villanelle is a type of poem that follows a strict structural form, derived from the Italian word villanella which means a rustic or rural song. This fixed verse form demonstrates the power of repetition and is often considered a good example of this style.

Structure of a Villanelle

Villanelles adhere to strict structural guidelines, challenging poets to find freedom within the set format. By focusing on the technical details, the poet can allow the content of the poem to flow unconsciously and result in a melodic and powerful piece. Let's take a closer look at the structure of a villanelle.


A villanelle consists of 19 lines, divided into five tercets (stanzas with three lines) and a final quatrain (four lines). The length or meter of each line is not restricted, providing poets with creative freedom in this aspect.

Rhyme Scheme

The villanelle follows an ABA rhyme scheme in each tercet, with two repeating rhymes. The final quatrain has an ABAA rhyme scheme. This strict rhyming pattern, combined with the repetition of lines, creates a nostalgic tone that evokes a sense of revisiting ideas and expressions.


One of the defining features of a villanelle is its use of two refrains, which are lines that are repeated throughout the poem. Line 1 is repeated in lines 6, 12, and 18, while line 3 is repeated in lines 9, 15, and 19. This repetition enhances the melodic quality of the poem.

Looking at examples of villanelles can help clarify these guidelines, which may seem daunting at first.

Evolution of the Villanelle

The villanelle originated as a simple, ballad-like song with no intended rhyme schemes or refrains. This rustic style was popular in Italian and Spanish dance songs before the 17th century. However, the modern form of the villanelle that we know today is often credited to French poet Jean Passerat, who published a poem titled "Villanelle (I lost my turtledove)" in 1606.

Despite its French origins, the villanelle became widely popular in Britain during the 1800s, thanks to the influence of French romantic poets. Poets Edmund Gosse and Austin Dobson further popularized the form in English poetry.

Examples of Villanelles

One of the most renowned villanelles of all time is "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas, published in 1951. This poem follows the strict structural guidelines of a villanelle and showcases the power of repetition in creating a melodic piece.

In addition to Thomas' work, the villanelle gained popularity in the late 20th century with the rise of the New Formalism movement in American poetry. This movement promoted the use of narrative poetry and metrical, rhymed verse in an effort to make poetry more competitive with novels.

In Conclusion

The villanelle is a fixed verse form that follows strict structural rules, with a focus on repetition. While it originated as a simple rustic song, it has evolved into a popular form in both French and English poetry. Despite its rigid guidelines, the villanelle continues to be a favorite among poets for its melodic quality and powerful imagery.

The Fascinating Form of Villanelles in Poetry

Villanelles, derived from the French word "villanelle" meaning rustic song, have been captivating poets for centuries. This highly technical form of poetry requires precision and skill to master, making it a unique and challenging form to write in.

One notable example of a villanelle is Dylan Thomas' 1951 poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night." This poem's structure consists of five tercets and a quatrain, with two alternating, repeating lines - "Do not go gentle into that good night" and "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Despite minor alterations in tense, these lines remain consistent throughout, maintaining the form's aesthetic while emphasizing its main concept.

Maintaining Traditional Form in "The Waking"

In a similar vein, Theodore Roethke's 1953 villanelle, "The Waking," explores the idea of appreciating life and making the most of our experiences. The poem's structure follows the traditional form, with two repeating lines - "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow" and "I learn by going where I have to go." However, to fit the overall theme and tone, Roethke alters the latter line to "[a]nd, lovely, learn by going where to go."

Roethke's use of powerful imagery, particularly of nature, further emphasizes the poem's themes of life and death. While the poem follows the villanelle structure, Roethke's slight variation in the second repeating line adds a unique touch to the traditional form.

The Beauty of Villanelles in English Literature

Both "Do not go gentle into that good night" and "The Waking" are prime examples of the villanelle form's enduring popularity in English literature. Despite slight variations and alterations, these poems maintain the essence and power of the traditional form.

When quoting from these or other villanelles, readers may notice that certain words' beginning letters are in square brackets. This alteration is necessary to maintain grammatical correctness when inserted into a sentence. This tip can be useful when writing essays, ensuring both grammatical accuracy and staying true to the original text.

Villanelles may seem daunting with their strict rhyme scheme and use of refrains, but these rules and constraints are also what make this form stand out. They allow for a deeper exploration of thematically dense and serious subject matter and evoke strong emotions in readers with their repetitive and melodic recitation.

While the modern form of the villanelle is said to have originated in 1606, it wasn't until the 19th and 20th centuries that it gained popularity in English literature. Notable examples include "Villanelle" (1877) by Edmund Gosse, "Do not go gentle into that good night" (1951) by Dylan Thomas, and "The Waking" (1953) by Theodore Roethke.

The Enduring Legacy of Villanelles

The villanelle is a poetic form that stands the test of time, with its strict structure and unique patterns adding depth and beauty to the words of a poet. It is a challenge that, when mastered, can lead to the creation of powerful and unforgettable pieces of literature. As T.S. Eliot once said, using a strict form can aid in freeing the poet's unconscious mind to release their innermost thoughts and emotions. Truly, the villanelle continues to be a key takeaway for any aspiring poet, leaving a lasting impact on readers with its lyrical and almost song-like quality.

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