Secret Library

What is a Villanelle?

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle introduces one of the most distinctive, and contentious, verse forms

‘What is a villanelle?’ is a question that anyone who encounters the word is likely to be stumped by, since, unlike a sonnet or a limerick, its precise structure and form are not widely known about. A villanelle remains a more specialised and lesser-known verse form alongside its more famous cousins. Yet some of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, including W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Sylvia Plath, all wrote villanelles. What is a villanelle, and why would anyone want to write one?

As its name suggests, the villanelle is a French verse form, yet this French form took its name from an Italian one: the word derives from villanella, a form of Italian part-song which originated in Naples in the sixteenth century. Yet English poetry, rather than French or Italian, has become the naturalised home of the villanelle. 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.’ An example of how the villanelle works in practice can be seen in an early example in English, Oscar Wilde’s ‘Theocritus: A Villanelle’ from 1890:

O singer of Persephone!
In the dim meadows desolate
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Still through the ivy flits the bee
Where Amaryllis lies in state;
O Singer of Persephone!

Simaetha calls on Hecate
And hears the wild dogs at the gate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Still by the light and laughing sea
Poor Polypheme bemoans his fate;
O Singer of Persephone!

And still in boyish rivalry
Young Daphnis challenges his mate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Slim Lacon keeps a goat for thee,
For thee the jocund shepherds wait;
O Singer of Persephone!
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Although the form dates back to a late sixteenth-century poem ‘Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)’ by Jean Passerat, it was only in the late nineteenth century that poets writing in English (both in England and in the United States) began to write villanelles. Wilde was an early practitioner; other examples can be seen in the work of Edwin Arlington Robinson, W. E. Henley, and Austin Dobson. But it was only in the twentieth century that it became a great English verse form.

And it was a twentieth-century writer who really helped to ‘put the villanelle on the map’ of English poetry. Surprisingly, he wasn’t primarily known as a poet himself, although he did write a small number of poems: he was principally a prose writer, and he popularised the villanelle for a new generation of writers not in a collection of poems, but in a novel. His name was James Joyce, and the novel in question was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), in which Stephen Dedalus writes one:

Are you not weary of ardent ways,
Lure of the fallen seraphim?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze
And you have had your will of him.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

Above the flame the smoke of praise
Goes up from ocean rim to rim.
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Our broken cries and mournful lays
Rise in one eucharistic hymn.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

While sacrificing hands upraise
The chalice flowing to the brim,
Tell no more of enchanted days.

And still you hold our longing gaze
With languorous look and lavish limb!
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

A young Cambridge student named William Empson read Joyce’s novel and was attracted to the possibilities of the villanelle form; from the late 1920s, he wrote a number of them, and also innovated with the form in longer works such as ‘Aubade’. Indeed, given Empson’s slim poetic output, the villanelle form comprises an unusually high percentage of his poetic oeuvre. Although the double refrains may lend themselves to dull repetitiveness, Empson saw that a successful example of the villanelle would make each new instance of the refrains alter slightly in meaning. We can see this in one of the most famous villanelles, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’, in which ‘do not’ begins as an imperative but, later in the poem, becomes indicative as well. This tension between familiarity (or wearied repetition, depending on the mood of the poem) and alteration is one of the chief signatures of the villanelle, when done right.

What Empson also recognised, and used to such great effect in his own villanelles, is that the two refrains should work something like the two images in a haiku: one refrain should be about something momentary and specific or local, the here and now; the other should be about something more universal and long-lasting, even eternal. Just as the haiku tends to place a transient image – a leaf falling, for instance – against the backdrop of something durable, like a mountainside or an ocean, so the villanelle derives its life from the friction or ‘spark’ generated by its two refrains. We see this time and again in Empson’s villanelles: the lasting misery of the universal statement that is ‘It is the pain, it is the pain endures’ is balanced by the startling precision of ‘Poise of my hands reminded me of yours’ (in a poem simply titled ‘Villanelle’, about a romantic break-up). And again, in Empson’s most famous poem, ‘Missing Dates’: ‘Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills’ (a precise, local action happening now) and ‘The waste remains, the waste remains and kills’ (the long-lasting ‘remains’ of such an action, put into universal and general terms).

Those villanelles which other poets wrote in Empson’s wake tend to succeed best when the poet is aware – whether consciously or otherwise – of this necessary friction. In Dylan Thomas, the imperative ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, which refers to the poet’s fear of his father’s imminent death finds its sentiment being reinforced, but also broadened, by the demand to ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’, where the call is not just to die well but to put off dying for as long as possible – to resist, in other words, nature’s attempts to make life too fleeting and finite.

What Thomas’ and Empson’s villanelles share, which you may have picked up on, is that the ‘enduring’ refrain – that is, the one concerned with enduring or remaining, whether desired or not – often contains repetition, even within the refrain: ‘Rage, rage’; ‘The waste remains, the waste remains’; ‘It is the pain, it is the pain’. A refrain is already a unit of repetition, but to make this ‘enduring’ refrain contain a microcosm of that larger repetition serves to reinforce the desired, or lamented, longevity of the poem’s subject: the waste remains (and then remains), the poet’s father should not just rage but keep on raging, and so on. What is a villanelle? It is a limited form that derives its very power from its limitations. It is a poem about repetition, a poem of repetition, seeking to undermine or escape from such narrow repetition, even against itself. It’s a hard form to master. But when done right, it can lead to a classic.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

6 Comments

  1. Reminds me of the time my American Poetry professor made me write a villanelle in exchange for attendance. Because of its strict structure, I found the creative overflow somewhat superfluous. It was nevertheless an interesting challenge.
    Thank you for this post.

  2. A great article! I’ve promised myself that one day I’ll sit down and write one:)).

    • They’re great fun to write – I saw a comment from A. E. Stallings on Twitter recently, as she was writing one, and she said that villanelles are generally more fun to write than to read. I had a go at writing a couple recently, but haven’t had the courage to publish them yet!

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