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Roundelay 

The roundelay is a complex, less-commonly used form of poetry that follows a strict pattern. 

A roundelay is a French form that is commonly associated with and confused for the rondelet, rondeau, rondel, and more. All of these forms have similar-sounding names but are used in different ways. 

The roundelay is sometimes defined as a short, lyric poem that uses a refrain. But, the strictest version of the poem, as demonstrated in the examples below, uses two rhymes and a pattern of repeating lines. It is also known as the “Dryden Roundelay” as the poet John Dryden popularized it in a specific version of the text. 

Roundelay Poetic Form Definition and Examples


Roundelay Poem Definition 

A roundelay is a French poem that is defined in several ways. Some suggest that roundelays are lyric poems that use refrains in some way, while others cite Dryden’s ‘Roundelay’ as the ideal version of the form. Others still turn to Samuel Beckett’s ‘Roundelay’ as an example. 

The latter has thirteen lines with an example of repetition in the middle. The lines vary from three to six syllables and form a palindromic structure. 

Characteristics of Roundelays

Below are a few of the characteristics that most roundelays share: 

  • Only two rhyme sounds are repeated throughout using an ABABAB rhyme scheme.
  • Uses at least one, and usually more, refrains
  • Contains four six-line stanzas, known as sestets.
  • Commonly written in trochaic tetrameter


Examples of Roundelays 

Roundelay by John Dryden 

Dryden’s ‘Roundelay’ is one of the most popular and commonly cited examples of this poetic form. It is just complex as the above rules suggest and can be hard to define in the terms of a rhyme scheme. 

Chloe found Amyntas lying,

All in tears, upon the plain,

Sighing to himself, and crying,

Wretched I, to love in vain!

Kiss me, dear, before my dying;

Kiss me once, and ease my pain.

The rhyme scheme of ABABAB is plainly seen with the end words “lying,” “plain,” “crying,” “vain,” “dying,” and “pain.” 

The poet also repeats the final couplet: “Kiss me, dear, before my dying / Kiss me once, and ease my pain” at the end of each stanza. That is, until the end of the final stanza, where the poet wrote: 

Kissed him up, before his dying;

Kissed him up, and eased his pain.

Throughout,  the reader should also note that the poet makes use of trochaic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second of which is unstressed. 

Read more John Dryden poems

Roundelay by Samuel Beckett 

Beckett’s ‘Roundelay’ is a contemporary version of this French poetic form that uses repetition in the number of syllables. The poem begins with the four lines: 

on all that strand

at end of day

steps sole sound

long sole sound

After line seven, the poem reflects the previous syllabic count. This unusual technique has inspired countless poets to attempt a similar structure. The poem occludes with similar lines. The final two lines, of thirteen total, read: 

on all that strand

at end of day

Beckett was an Irish playwright, poet, short story writer, and more. He’s best known his bleak, impersonal scenes and contributions to modernism. In 1969, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Roundelay or Rondel? 

A roundelay, as mentioned above, is a complex French form of poetry that has been defined in a few different ways. It, like the Rondel, has its origins in France but is still used to some degree in contemporary poetry. The best-known example is ‘Rondel of Merciless Beauty’ by Chaucer. It demonstrates the poet’s use of refrains, following the rhyme scheme of ABBA ABAB ABBAA.

These poems have fourteen lines and conclude with a sestet. The first two lines of the first stanza are refrains. This means that the lines are used and reused at other moments in the text.

Roundelay or Rondeau?

A rondeau is also often sometimes confused for a roundelay. The best-known modern example of this, also French, form of poetry is In Flanders Fieldsby John McCrae. It is a thirteen-line poem that is divided into three sections, one of five lines, another of three, and one more of five. These are only two rhymes used throughout the poem (as in a roundelay), and the poet uses the opening words of the first line as a refrain at the end of the next two stanzas. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Ballade: a medieval and Renaissance verse form that is distinct from the far more common “ballad.” It was commonly used in France during the 13th-15th centuries. 
  • Curtal Sonnet: an eleven-line sonnet that follows a pattern of either ABCABCDCBDC or ABCABCDBCDC. 
  • Epitaph: a short lyric written in memory of someone who has died. Sometimes, epitaphs serve as elegies.
  • Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
  • Lai: a medieval lyric poem written in France in octosyllabic couplets. There are a few examples of this specific poetic form in English. 
  • Canzone: a verse form in Italy and France in the medieval period.
  • Terza Rima: a very specific rhyme scheme that follows the rhyming pattern of ABA BCB DED.


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