Villanelle

A villanelle is a nineteen-line poem divided into five tercets (sets of three lines) and one concluding quatrain (a set of four lines). They can be written about any topic.

Structure of Villanelles

  • The villanelle uses a very consistent rhyme scheme. It should include:
  • Two refrains in which the entire line is reused.
  • The poet should reuse the first and third lines of the first stanza.
  • These lines should appear in every subsequent stanza.
  • No specific metrical pattern.
  • The tercets rhyme ABA, and the quatrain rhymes ABAA.


History of the Villanelle

The villanelle is sometimes known as the villanesque. It began in the 18th century as a song sung by peasants on pastoral subjects. At the time, it contained five tercets and one quatrain. It was popularized in the 1800s by writers like Andrew Lang and Oscar Wilde. The villanelle is an example of a form that’s still used today despite its restrictive form. It’s not widely used, but contemporary poets do experiment with it.

Examples of Villanelles

Villanelle Example #1

Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath

This well-loved poem by Sylvia Plath is a wonderful, modern example of a villanelle. It explores the true nature of a past relationship and uses numerous poetic devices. The first stanza of the poem reads:

I shut my eyes, and all the world drops dead;

I lift my lids and all is born again.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The first and third lines of this stanza are “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead” and “(I think I made you up inside my head.)” They are used alternatively in the following five stanzas. For example, the second stanza reads:

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,

And arbitrary blackness gallops in:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

Here, the first line becomes the third. The following stanza uses the line “(I think I made you up inside my head.)” as the third line. The format of this poem is perfect for the content it’s exploring. The speaker returns again and again to the same thoughts, expressing the feeling of “madness” as though she can’t get these words out of her head. Phrases like “drops dead” and “made you up inside my head” are particularly effective, especially as they’re used over and over.

Villanelle Example #2

The Waking by Theodore Roethke

‘The Waking’ is another modern villanelle. It conforms to the traditional nineteen-line pattern and is composed of five tercets and one quatrain. The first stanza reads:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

The lines repeated in the next stanzas are “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow” and “I learn by going where I have to go.” They alternate between stanzas. For example, stanza two uses the first line. It reads:

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Here, the first line of the first stanza becomes the third line. The other line, “I learn by going where I have to go,” is used in the third, fifth, and sixth stanzas. The first line is used in the second, fourth, and sixth stanzas.

Other Villanelles to Explore

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