The Villanelle

The villanelle is a form of poetry that we have not yet spoken about in depth in class. Villanelles were influenced by French and Italian rural songs, and first appeared in English literature in the 19th century. The word villanelle comes from the Italian word villanella, which means a pastoral song and dance. Indeed, the idea of the villanelle came from a peasant dance song in which a singer would intersperse fixed lines with improvised ones of their own.

Like the sonnet and the limerick, the villanelle is a poetic form that follows strict rules. Although there is no set rhythm, typically, there are nineteen lines which are divided into five stanzas of three lines, and end with one stanza of four lines. A good example of the structure can be found in Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The first and third line from the first stanza repeat in alternating stanzas, and are both used in at the end. Additionally, there is an ABA ABA ABA rhyme scheme, with only two rhyming sounds. Because of this strict rhyme scheme, it is difficult to sustain and develop a story, and it resembles more of a lyric due to all of the refrains. Villanelles deal with a variety of themes, ranging from love to horror. In many instances, because of the repetitive nature of the form, the villanelle is used to convey feelings of obsession or reiteration, as can be seen in some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry. Here are some examples of villanelles:

The first villanelle, written by Jean Passerat

Wouldst Thou Not Be Content to Die by Edmund Gosse

Theocritus: A Villanelle by Oscar Wilde

Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath

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