Villanelle

The villanelle has a reputation in some quarters as a difficult form, but in fact it's a doddle. One of its main features is that entire lines are repeated. So you start very simply by writing a rhyming couplet, and immediately you find almost half the poem is written already! Then you decide what the "other" rhyme is going to be. After that it's practically all over; just a matter of filling in the gaps. As an example, here's a villanelle I wrote early in the 1998-9 football season when Aston Villa were top of the Premiership table (temporarily, obviously).

Aston Villanelle
The boys with claret chests and sleeves of blue
Have found their form, and now they're riding high.
For every goal you score, they will get two.

Results this season prove what Brummies knew.
They won't get beat, however hard you try,
The boys with claret chests and sleeves of blue.

Come Liverpool and Leeds, Chelsea, Man U!
At Villa Park your title dreams will die -
For every goal you score, they will get two.

Some silverware up here is overdue.
This season we can praise them to the sky,
The boys with claret chests and sleeves of blue.

And even if Stan Collymore gets flu,
There's Joachim and Merson (what a buy!) -
For every goal you score, they will get two.

The table tells you what I say is true,
A fact that you'd be foolish to deny:
The boys with claret chests and sleeves of blue,
For every goal you score, they will get two.

For maximum effect, this should be read in a Brummie accent. Anyway, we have five tercets and a quatrain, with a rhyming scheme that goes:

A1
b
A2

a
b
A1

a
b
A2

a
b
A1

a
b
A2

a
b
A1
A2

Here A1 and A2 are the two rhyming lines we started with, each "a" represents another line that rhymes with them both, and the "b"s all rhyme with each other. Note that there are 5 "a"s here, so you need 5 more words that rhyme with your original couplet; and there are 6 "b"s, so you'll need another 6 words that rhyme with each other. If you have in mind a line that ends with the word "orange", then the villanelle is not the verse form you want to try and build around it!

The 19-line villanelle as shown here is the standard form, but occasionally a poet will put in extra pair (or two, or even more) of tercets, yielding a villanelle of 25 lines (or 31, or even longer). I once submitted a 31-line villanelle to a magazine. The editor rejected it, saying that it was 12 lines too long to be a villanelle. I went away and sulked a bit. . .  then worked on it until it had 151 lines. (I would claim a world record for this, if I thought anybody was likely to be interested.) It still hasn't been published, of course.

A related form - much less well-known - is the villancico. See also the virelai nouveau.

Notable villanelles

Villanelle of his Lady's treasures, by Ernest Dowson.
Pan
(a double villanelle), by Oscar Wilde
Do not go gentle into that good night, by Dylan Thomas.
If I could tell you, by W H Auden.
Reading Scheme, by Wendy Cope.

There's also a nice example The Threshold on Elizabeth Kay's site.

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Bob Newman 2004. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 16/02/2007