All About Poetry

What Are Villanelles?

Villanelles, also known as villanesques, have always allured me, and I’m pretty darn sure they will continue to do so. But what exactly are villanelles? What kind of poems can be called villanelles? And is it easy to write villanelles? Well, this post aims at answering all the questions that you might have apropos villanelles. But before I begin, I would suggest you read a villanelle I wrote a couple of days ago. You can so do by clicking here. After you complete reading all of what I have mentioned below, you can get back and read the villanelle again to get a better understanding of what villanelles actually are.

Understanding the Term ‘Villanelle’

The English word ‘villanelle’ is actually derived from the Italian word ‘villanella’, which means a rustic song or dance. The word ‘villanella’, in turn, is derived from the word ‘villano’, which means a peasant. Simply put, villanelles were initially a copy of peasant songs that did not have any specific poetic structure. It is worth mentioning here that although villanelles were originally composed by French poets and balladeers, the majority of villanelles that have been composed are in English. A villanelle is a very good example of the fixed verse poetry, which is considered the opposite of the free verse form of poetry.

19 Verses With No Set Meter

Now that you know what the word ‘villanelle’ means, that a villanelle is a short poem comprising 19 verses is the first and foremost thing I feel I ought to let you know. These verses are generally short and crisp, but there are no rules pertaining to the length of verses in a villanelle. It might also be noted that villanelles do not have any rules having to do with the syllables that appear in each verse. Although modern-day villanelles do not have any set meter, most of the 19th-century villanelles employed trimeter. Villanelles, nevertheless, have also used tetrameter and pentameter.

For No Rhyme or Reason!

You know now that a villanelle comprises 19 verses. These verses are divided into a total of five stanzas. While each of the first four stanzas consists of three lines and is thus referred to as a tercet, the last stanza comprises four lines and is called a quatrain. The most important thing that you need to keep in mind about this type of poem is that the first, sixth, twelfth, and eighteenth verses are the same. Though slight changes are permissible, it must be kept in mind that none of these verses can be completely altered. Similarly, the third, ninth, fifteenth, and nineteenth verses have to be the same. Here again, slight modifications are allowed. In different words, a villanelle must possess two refrains. The first line of the first stanza becomes the last line of both second and fourth stanzas and the penultimate line of the fifth stanza. The third line of the first stanza, nevertheless, becomes the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. Phew! That’s a lot of rules already! Right?

Rhyme Scheme

Villanelles are not easy to compose; for while on the one hand, they have strict rules pertaining to the repetition of verses, on the other hand, they are required to follow a rhyme scheme. There are only two repeating rhymes throughout, which means that each of the tercets uses the rhyme scheme ABA while the quatrain uses the rhyme scheme ABAA. The rhyme-and-refrain pattern can be illustrated thus:

1B2 AB1 AB2 AB1 AB2 AB12

Here, A and B refer to the rhyme sounds while 1 and 2 indicate the two refrains. Please note that both refrains rhyme with A.

Summary

So a villanelle is a well-structured short poem that
• does not always follow an established meter
• comprises 19 verses
• has two refrains and two rhymes
• follows the ABA rhyme scheme (and ABAA in the quatrain)
• has five tercets followed by one quatrain

Must-Read Villanelles

Here are some great villanelles that you ought to read:
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath
The House on the Hill by Edwin Arlington Robinson