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Poetry Guide: Villanelle

A villanelle (or occasionally villonelle) is a traditional poetic form which entered English-language poetry in the late 1800s from the imitation of French models.


While it is sometimes claimed that the form is named for the French poet François Villon (1431–1474), most experts agree that the form derives from a round sung by farmhands and that the name comes from the Latin villa, (farm) and villano (farmhand) via the Italian villanella. Medieval villanelles were of variable form and the earliest known villanelle in the modern form is a poem about a turtledove by Jean Passerat (1534–1602).


The following is the schematic representation of a villanelle:

Line one (A1)*
Line two (b)
Line three (A2)*
Line four (A2)
Line five (b)
Line one (A1)
Line six (A1)
Line seven (b)
Line three (A2)
Line eight (A2)
Line nine (b)
Line one (A1)
Line ten (A1)
Line eleven (b)
Line three (A2)
Line twelve (A2)
Line thirteen (b)
Line one (A1)
Line three (A2)

Versions with three, seven, nine, or any odd number of three-line stanzas are also possible.

The villanelle in English

Although the relatively low number of rhyme words available makes the writing of villanelles more difficult in English than it is in Romance languages, many English-language poets have used the form. Wilde and Austin Dobson were amongst the first English practitioners and many twentieth-century poets have used it, often in reaction to free verse. These poets include W. H. Auden, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, William Empson, Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath. James Joyce included a villanelle, ostensibly written by his fictional alter-ego Stephen Dedalus, in his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.


The following villanelle by Sylvia Plath illustrates a modern version of the form.

Mad Girl's Love Song

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 stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Other villanelles in English on Wikipedia include Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and Edwin Arlington Robinson's The House On The Hill