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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. Read the rest of this entry