The Best Villanelles in English Poetry
The best villanelles everyone should read
As its name suggests, the villanelle is a French verse form, yet English has become its natural home. The villanelle is the greatest immigrant verse form. This intriguing verse form comprises 19 lines made up of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a concluding quatrain. As the Oxford English Dictionary summarises it, ‘The first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated alternately in the succeeding stanzas as a refrain, and form a final couplet in the quatrain.’ Although the form dates back to a late sixteenth-century poem ‘Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)’ by Jean Passerat, it was in the twentieth century that it became a great English verse form. (Indeed, it appears that Passerat invented the form himself with this poem). As the following eight poems suggest, this poetic form has been tried out by some of the major poets of the twentieth century, with memorable results.
Edwin Arlington Robinson, ‘The House on the Hill’. One of the first great examples of the villanelle in English, this poem is a fine exercise in nostalgia, but also a wonderful example of how the villanelle’s built-in repetition can be put to effective use: ‘there is nothing more to say’, yet he will keep on saying it, that ‘they are all gone away’, because when we dwell on the past we are slaves to the same repeated statements and thoughts that the villanelle allows the poet to express.
William Ernest Henley, ‘A Dainty Thing’s the Villanelle’. W. E. Henley is better-known for his poem ‘Invictus’, with its rousing final lines, ‘I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul’. But in this poem, Henley pokes gentle fun at the villanelle, saying that it ‘serves its purpose passing well’ – as long as you don’t ask too much of the form, that is.
William Empson, ‘Missing Dates’. Empson (1906-84) was one of the most influential literary critics of the entire twentieth century (Jonathan Bate has called him the greatest of that century, because he’s ‘also the funniest’). But Empson was also a gifted poet whose work falls somewhere between the modernism of T. S. Eliot and the work of ‘Thirties Poets’ such as W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice. ‘Missing Dates’ is one of several excellent villanelles Empson wrote, and his most famous. But like many of Empson’s poems, it is difficult and allusive. What is the ‘poison’ that fills the bloodstream? What is the ‘waste’ that ‘remains’ and ‘kills’? The complex task of trying to fathom this powerful poem only becomes harder as the same enigmatic mantras are repeated throughout.
W. H. Auden, ‘If I Could Tell You’. Written in 1940 during the Second World War, the poem conveys Auden’s, and much of the world’s, sense of uncertainty concerning the future. ‘If I Could Tell You’ teeters on being a love poem: the speaker tells the addressee ‘I love you more than I can say’. That much, it seems, is certain at least.
Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’. Bishop (1911-79) is now regarded as one of the great American poets of the twentieth century, although her reputation is still eclipsed by the confessional poets such as Sylvia Plath (who also features on this list). ‘One Art’ considers losses and losings of all kinds, celebrating them as ‘art’. The artful artifice of the villanelle form is here pressed into glorious service.
Dylan Thomas, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’. One of Thomas’s most famous poems, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ is a villanelle, a poem divided into three-line stanzas where the same two repeated lines of verse comprise the last line of each alternating stanza. This poetic form enables Thomas to use the title within the poem as both an instruction (or request) and a simple indicative statement. Written about the death of Thomas’s own father, the poem was completed not long before Dylan himself would die, aged just 39, in 1953. Hear Thomas reading ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ here.
Keith Douglas, ‘Villanelle of Spring Bells’. Douglas (1920-44) is widely regarded as the greatest of the British WWII poets, and upon his death during the D-Day Landings in June 1944 he left behind a slim but substantial body of poems. He was a deft versifier and successfully tried his hand at a villanelle, as this wonderful poem, written when he was a young undergraduate at Oxford in 1940, testifies. Douglas’ reference to ‘evil men intent on evil thing’ (a wonderful curtailment of the expected ‘things’) shows that the war isn’t far behind the apparently joyous sound of spring bells.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’. Sylvia Plath shared her birthday with Dylan Thomas, and she also shared a fondness for the villanelle form. ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ is an interesting and inventive take on the villanelle, written when Plath was still a student in the early 1950s. Who is the ‘you’ Plath addresses in the poem? It’s possible to see the poem as a response to schizophrenia and to posit that the ‘you’ is actually Plath, or a version of her: she is addressing herself. The repetitive and closed-off nature of the villanelle might, then, be viewed here as a vehicle for conveying Plath’s own sense of psychological confinement.
Image: William Ernest Henley, from The Story of the House of Cassell (1922), Wikimedia Commons.