Monday, 17 January 2011

Monday One Stop Poetry Form - Villanelle

Welcome to One Stop Poetry Form

We want to encourage you to explore different poetry forms over the weeks and months to come. We will spend the first "session" describing the poetic form and the second week will be a time for the individual poet to do exercises with the form and an experienced poet. Please have fun and remember we are learning together!

For the  next two weeks of  Poetry Form I , Claudia Schönfeld ,would like to introduce you to one of my favorite Poetry forms - the Villanelle.

Are you ready for an excursion to the past with some history and background, for some technical details (no worries - it's not going to be too technical - I'm a very non-technical person myself...), and lastly are you ready to get inspired to try a Villanelle yourself?

Villanelles have a long history

The word “villanelle” comes from the Italian villano (“peasant”) and means "country song".
Originally it was a dance song sung by a Renaissance troubadour with no particular form.
So this means, the first Villanelles were written in italian language. 

The structure we know today took shape after Jean Passerat’s famous 16th century Villanelle, “J’ai perdu ma tourtourelle” (“I Have Lost My Turtle Dove”)

Villanelles appeared in English poetry around 1800.

Today's Villanelles still follow this unique, yet repetitive, rhyme pattern from the 16th century which lends a haunted quality to the Narrative Voice.

Here's a translation of Jean Passerat 's Villanelle from the 16th century (originally written in French.)

I Have Lost My Turtle Dove 
by Jean Passerat

I have lost my turtledove:
Isn’t that her gentle coo?
I will go and find my love.

Here you mourn your mated love;
Oh, God–I am mourning too:
I have lost my turtledove.

If you trust your faithful dove,
Trust my faith is just as true;
I will go and find my love.

Plaintively you speak your love;
All my speech is turned into
“I have lost my turtledove.”

Such a beauty was my dove,
Other beauties will not do;
I will go and find my love.

Death, again entreated of,
Take one who is offered you:
I have lost my turtledove;
I will go and find my love.

The Structure of Villanelle

Villanelles have a rhyme - a rhythm and a structure...

What I love about Villanelles is their musicality; they have a beat - they grip you - they rock you like waves in an ocean and they will worm their way inside your mind and heart because of their rhythm.
It seldom happens to me that I remember the lines of my free verse poems exactly, but I often remember the lines of my Villanelles because they feel more like a song than a poem.

A Villanelle consists of six stanzas with a total of 19 lines ( first five stanzas with three lines each and last stanza with four lines) this structure hasn't changed since 1600..

Villanelles are usually written in 

tetrameter (a line containing four beats/stresses)

                 A  life like colored drops of rain

Beats:             1            2            3          4 


pentameter (a line containing five beats/stresses)

               Do not go gentle into that good night,

Beats:             1         2       3     4               5

There are two refrains throughout the entire villanelle (A1 and A2) and each of them appears four times - so they should be chosen carefully because they form the backbone of the piece. Think of a refrain like the chorus that is repeated in a song.

Example: How the refrains and rhymes work:

Do not go gentle into that good night,  (A1 - appears 4 times - has to rhyme with A2 and a)
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;  (b - appears once & has only to rhyme with the other b's)
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  (A2 - appears 4 times - has to rhyme with A1 and a)

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,  (a - appears only once & has to rhyme with A1+A2)
Because their words had forked no lightning they  (b)
Do not go gentle into that good night.  (A1 - this is the second repetition of A1 in the first line)

Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 2 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 4 (a)
Line 5 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 7 (a)
Line 8 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 10 (a)
Line 11 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 13 (a)
Line 14 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 16 (a)
Line 17 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Two Famous Villanelles

House on the Hill
by American Poet Edwin Arlington (1869 - 1935)

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill.
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

Mad Girl's Love Song
by American Poet Sylvia Plath (1932 - 1963)

"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.)"


I guess by now you almost can’t wait to start writing?
Got your pen ready and sharpened?
Give it a try, write your first or hundredth Villanelle and link up with us.

Review ~ Writing the Villanelle
  • Think about the meter – tetrameter or pentameter (others are possible as well)
  • Once you have decided on a meter, try to feel the beat - does it flow?
  • Do the lines read with a good rhythm in four/five beats? It’s a good idea to speak the lines out while writing/editing, maybe even tap the beat with your feet to make sure they count the number of stresses/beats you've decided on.
  • Choose your Refrains carefully – they form the backbone of your piece
  • Make sure the lines end with a word which rhymes easily
  • You can use online rhyme tools like to find rhyming words
  • Think about a topic you would like to write about – but don’t be too focused – let it flow and allow the rhythm, your emotions and the words to drag you
  • Have the structure right in front of you – I usually copy the structure to a page and then write like this..


Refrain 1 (A1)     Do not go gentle into that good night,
Line 2 (b)            Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Refrain 2 (A2)     Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

..and so on...

Next week we may pick some Villanelles as examples and have a closer look, done by an expert who will also share some of his personal experience and knowledge.


Beachanny said...

What a lovely and refreshing commentary on villanelles Claudia. One of my favorite forms for reasons you musical, like a music box or waterfalls. I am posting my favorite of my own here. It's called Nocturne.

Semaphore said...

One of my favourites is Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle" but some really good modern practitioners of the form are Sandra Beasley and Shaindel Beers. Check them out!

A Fistful Of Moonbeams™ said...

I have always been the greatest fan of traditional rhyme-schemes for their irrepressible musicality. Thanks for the delightful discussion.

hedgewitch said...

I love villanelles, even though to date I've only written the one I'm posting here. As Claudia says, there's something about the repetition and rhythm that worms its way into your a good way. ;-)

John's comments said...

Nice to see form discussed. I always find that they give more not less freedom to writing. And once the form understood you can then play with it. Here is one I did earlier!

jen revved said...

This was wonderful and I gave it my best shot not realizing that we weren't writing and sharing this time-- but I did. xxxj

moondustwriter said...

Please feel free to take a shot at it - next time we will just try to do some critiquing of a few - maybe the ones from this week

the walking man said...

We'll see. Please I would like more information on what the "rules" for beat counts are.

Because I see and understand the examples given. Yet I would count them different.

Do not

go gentle



good night

I don't know if I count the pentameter different because of the alliteration in "go gentle"
or am I wrong because of the hard G and soft G?

Arron Palmer said...

Ahh the old villanelles. My first band was called The Villanelles. Anyway, great idea Claudia, and I cant wait to get home and start working on mine! Hope to get it up by 6pm London time.

Claudia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Claudia said...

@ walking man

...and here's Luke's reply and how he would show it:

do NOT | go GEN | tle IN | to THAT | good NIGHT

BUT - you have to keep in mind that this is iambic pentameter and it's not essential to write Villanelles in iambic pentameter (good if you can though)
"Do not go gentle" is written in iambic pentameter and also "Mad Girl's Love Song" but it's not essential.

Hope this helped?

Claudia said...

some thoughts about counting the beat...
it's not about counting syllables. it can be very helpful to tap the beat (or even use a metronome) and read the lines out loud - how does it sound? do the words fall naturally?
if you had to sing them (maybe you SHOULD sing them..) do they fit the beat you've decided on?
it's a lot about rhythm and feeling the beat. don't think too technically..

Maureen said...

Excellent post, Claudia. I'm delighted you highlighted three quite different poets.

Brad Fallon said...

My mother used to work as a librarian and she is a fan of Edwin Arlington. I was inspired by the form of Villanelle, I tried it before but sadly I gave up poetry because I have seen that my talent involves only reading and not writing.:(

dustus said...

What an excellent post that both inspires and presents amazing examples of what can be done through this form! When you're surfing about, also check out "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke.

Anonymous said...

wonderful post, Claudia! Thrilled to see Sylvia Plath as one of the examples...that is one of my favorite poems!

Someone Is Special said...

Well, I love this form of poem.. Thanks One Stop..

Someone is Special

patty said...

This was a bit tough, rules are sometimes hard for me. xo but I do love the musicality of it.

signed...bkm said...

Good excerise...this is my first attempt...quite simple...bkm

Pete Marshall said...

when poetry encourages rhyme obviously i am in....but i have never attempted this before so i feel very vulnerable....cheers pete

Anonymous said...

Love this form: Challenging because of its limits but beautifully haunting when one gets it.

Natasha said...

Learned much from today's topic, though I must say I have totally villanized this form in regards to my own poetry. Your posts and examples have helped me enough to want to share my feeble attempt. Thanks again for the learning! :)

Kodjo Deynoo. said...

I don't think I answered the challenge, but I tried

Claudia said...

just amazed that so many gave it a try and linked up...honestly i thought because of the structure and the rhyme (which doesn't look that easy and certainly isn't that easy) i didn't hope for many entries...
so i'm really thankful for every brave poet who gave it a try..and some of you for the first time - this is really cool..

Corbie said...

Claudia, I really liked how you explained the Villanelle. It was clear and concise. I have only tried my hand at free verse, personally my most comfortable type. Not quite ready for this challenge, but will try my hand at it when I've tried a few rythmatic poems.

Claudia said...

by now i have visited all who have linked up - but don't manage to leave a detailed comment on all of your posts. in case you want me to have a closer look, just leave a comment here and i'll be back...with a beer and a sharpened pen...smiles

Anonymous said...

Looking good, Claudia! Great to see so many give it a try... look forward to next week


AIDY said...

Villanelle's are one of my favorite forms to write. Great explanation and examples of the form. It is a difficult form to master abut extremely fun to try!

Scott said...

I've got to hand to the poets who are strict to form. I don't know how they do it. Maybe it's a habit.It took me a few tries to get used to the beat; even after it was all I done I'm still uncertain I nailed it. This was quite the challenge (I know. I know: challenges are good). Thanks for the exercise Claudia.

Anonymous said...

First Villanelle.

Anonymous said...

Brad Fallon is spam.

lizziviggi said...

This was so much fun to work with-- I really enjoyed the form. I've been wanting to write a poem with a particular theme, and it never turned out right... till now! Apparently it always wanted to be a villanelle.

Andrea (Andee) Beltran said...

I had some lines stuck in my head this morning, and then I read your link on Twitter which sent me straight to the villanelle. It was a sign. Thank you for the motivation today!

My villanelle is at

Happy writing, everyone. :)

Carys said...

My favourite of the old forms, absolutely love DT's Do Not Go Gentle - the old drunkard sure knew a thing or two about writing poetry His writing shed is a half hour drive from my house, beautiful spot, I go there occasionally hoping some the magic will rub off - well a girl can dream eh!

Great idea explaining and demonstrating form. Thanks Claudia.

Theodore Daniel Richards said...

Haben eine guten schlafen:)


Samanthamj said...

hmmmm... I followed a link on my friend, Raven's blog... and think I'll like this place. I have never tried a Villanelle - but, now that I know a little about it, I think I'd like to try. Thanks! =)

Anonymous said...

Phew, I always struggle with forms but I love villanelles so I gave it my best! I love the examples you put up, Mad Girl is one of my favorite poems (I have it memorized!) What a great post about them, you made it super easy to understand!

the walking man said...

do NOT | go GEN | tle IN | to THAT | good NIGHT

OK I see how the Iambic feet are broken up now. Though when I read this piece By Thomas I would put the emphasis in the first iamb on NOT but Go in the second. But I can see where that would screw around with the rhythm of the Iambic on the written page. Thanks Claudia.

Learn something new every day.

Semaphore said...

Sorry, my #44 post was meant for OneShotWednesday, obviously not a villanelle! I am not new to poetry, but obviously very new to OSP!

ZeR0BaCkUp said...


bumfuzzled said...

It's like really late, but Pete talked me into posting anyway. blame him ;)

Who Is Afraid of Alfred Hitchcock? said...

Claudia said,"The word “villanelle” comes from the Italian villano (“peasant”) and means "country song".
Originally it was a dance song sung by a Renaissance troubadour with no particular form.

Hi! Claudia...
Thanks, for sharing all the information... (and the Poems by Passeret, Arlington, and Plath.)...about Poetry and this form called...the Villanelle.

I must return in order to reread and absorb this style and form called...the Villanelle. Of course, from a reader, perspective...since I'am not a writer.

DeeDee ;-D