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A villanelle is a nineteen-line poem that is divided into five tercets or sets of three lines, and one concluding quatrain, or set of four lines.

There is a very consistent rhyme scheme that the most form conscious poets conform to. There should, if one is following the poem exactly, be two refrains in the text. This is a kind of repetition in which an entire line is reused. In the case of the villanelle, the first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated, alternatively, in the next five.

When it comes to meter, there is no specific pattern the form requires, but with the use of repetition, it often feels as though there is a metrical pattern present.

When reading a description of this form, it can seem very complicated and hard to visualize. Therefore, it is important to look at some examples of villanelles and follow line by line, how repetition and rhyme are utilized.


Example of the Villanelle Form

One example is ‘The Home on the Hill’ by Edward Arlington Robinson. Take a note when reading through the first three stanzas how lines one and three of the first stanza are used later on in the text.

They are all gone away,

The house is shut and still,

There is nothing more to say


Through broken walls and gray,

The wind blows bleak and shrill,

They are all gone away


Nor is there one today,

To speak them good or ill

There is nothing more to say

It is obvious that the first line “They are all gone away” is reused at the end of the second stanza. Then, that the third line, “There is nothing more to say” is reused at the end of the third stanza. They go back and forth, alternatively standing in as the third line, for the rest of the stanzas.


History of the Villanelle

The villanelle, also known as a villanesque, started without a fixed rhyme scheme or any of the rules associated with the form today. In the 18th century, it was associated with something much simpler— country songs sung by peasants. The first time that the fixed five tercet, one quatrain form was used was in Jean Passerat’s poem ‘Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)’ or “I have lost my turtledove”. Despite its origins in French poetry, the majority of villanelles have been written in English. In the late 1800s, writers such as Andrew Lang, Oscar Wilde, and John Payne popularized the form in England.

Take a look at some other examples of how poets have used the form:

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