Poet’s Workshop: Understanding the Villanelle

Although rhymed poetry has not been in vogue for decades, modern writers such as Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas have learned to exercise their minds and make good use of the poetic forms of centuries past. One of Plath’s first-published poems was a villanelle, as was one of Thomas’ most famous, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”. This nineteen-line form gives the poet quite a challenge: Use only two rhymes, and repeat two lines throughout the poem.

The rhyme scheme is as follows:

aba
aba
aba
aba
aba
abaa

As you can see, there are five triplets followed by a quatrain for a total of nineteen lines, and only two rhymes – a and b – are used. There is no particular meter or line length for this form.

Here’s the catch: The first and third lines, called refrains, are alternately used to end each triplet.Take another look at the structure:

aba
ab a
ab a
ab a
ab a
ab a a

So those first and third lines had better be well-written and extremely versatile, because you’re going to have to use them throughout the poem.

Take a look at this example of a villanelle, “The House on the Hill” by Edwin Robinson, originally published in 1894 in The Globe:

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.

Notice one important and rarely variable aspect of the form: Because two of the first three lines are each repeated a total of four times in the body of this brief poem, the main idea remains the same throughout the villanelle. Unlike the sonnet, wherein rhyme changes facilitate a shift in thoughts or ideas, the villanelle gives the writer very little opportunity to deviate from the first thought stated. So, the original thought must usually be developed, explained, reconsidered, etc.

Since this form is sort of a poet’s parlor trick, don’t be discouraged if you don’t nail it the first time you try to write a villanelle. Keep working at the form, and eventually, you’ll puzzle it out with passable results.

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