Virelai Ancien

The virelai ancien is a medieval form that has done well to survive this long, and is unlikely to be widely mourned if it doesn't survive very much longer. Perhaps my feelings toward it would be more charitable if I hadn't just forced myself to write one of the wretched things. This is how it turned out:

The Virelai Ancien
The virelai’s a lot of fun!
Of flavours, most forms have but one,
But it has two.
The ancient flavour first was spun
When time itself had just begun;
The world was new.
Some neolithic Tennyson
Beneath the prehistoric sun,
Who’d had a few -
The Muse struck him, and soon he’d done
A verse form that would run and run.
’Twas quite a coup!

He sang of hunting caribou;
Of making of it a ragout;
Of gluttony.
His whole tribe – later called the Sioux -
Went wild about this form’s debut,
Its subtlety.
A tidal wave of ballyhoo,
Of photo shoot and interview -
Celebrity -
Engulfed our hero ere he knew.
Then other bards tried to outdo
His minstrelsy.

It was a wondrous sight to see,
This verse form’s popularity –
They wanted more!
For there had been a scarcity
Of highly-structured poetry
There, theretofore.
The virelai’s complexity
Imparted a resplendency
None could ignore.
It spread by bush telegraphy
To Blackfoot, Crow, and Cherokee, 
From shore to shore.

It didn’t last. A natural law
Of nature, red in tooth and claw
(Exemptions: none)
Ordains that, like the dinosaur,
Each species must in time withdraw,
Its race well run -
Though no Sioux critic, brave or squaw,
The virelai nouveau foresaw,
Or how it won.
And yet the ancien lost the war.
The Sioux don’t write them now, and nor
Does anyone.

As you see, you need rhymes literally by the dozen - each rhyme occurs 8 times in the long lines of one stanza, and 4 times in the short lines of the next (and the form loops back at the end, so that the short lines of the last stanza rhyme with the long lines of the first). You can have as many stanzas as you like, but personally I'd say four was enough for anybody. 

(Actually you're allowed to have 9-line stanzas, or even 6-line stanzas, as long as you stick with the pattern of 2 long lines followed by a short one, and honour the rhyming scheme. But stanzas shorter than 12 lines are for wimps.)

In truth, the virelai ancien seems to me to be much more of a test of ones ability to find rhymes than a recipe for writing a good poem. But if you enjoy a challenge, go for it!

Related forms

As suggested in the example, there is also a traditional form called the virelai nouveau. Both these kinds of virelai are descendants of even older forms, the lai and the (just plain) virelai.

The virelai post-moderne has no pedigree at all, and is nothing to do with any of them.

The rhyming short lines are an example of rime couée.

Notable Virelais Anciens

The example above does not score highly for factual accuracy, except for the last two lines.

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© Bob Newman 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 03/01/2007