By Dusty Grein

Hailing from 15th and 16th century French and Italian roots, the villanelle is arguably one of the strongest repeating refrain forms in classical poetry.

Its use of two alternating refrains creates an echo that reverberates throughout its mere nineteen lines. The result is an intensity that can be both haunting and powerful; it is this intensity that leads the villanelle to most often be used in the dramatic creation of strong emotions, or deeply emotional themes.

It is a very rigidly structured form, but due to its limited rhyming foot scheme—only two rhyme sounds are used—and its use of two refrain lines, it can be less difficult to compose than many other structured forms. The poem is comprised of six stanzas: five tercets followed by a single quatrain, each of which uses at least one of the refrain lines, in alternating sequence.

Here is the basic pattern, using A1 for the first refrain, A2 for the second, and (a) and (b) for the other lines. Each stanza is shown on a single line here, but is made of individual lines in the poem:

Stanza 1:    A1, b, A2
Stanza 2:    a, b, A1
Stanza 3:    a, b, A2
Stanza 4:    a, b, A1
Stanza 5:    a, b, A2
Stanza 6:    a, b, A1, A2.

 

Meter

Technically the villanelle doesn’t require a meter, but the majority of classic poets have used solid meters when crafting them; this helps to create the rhythmic cadence that is part of the form’s magic.

Perhaps the most famous villanelle ever written is Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Written in iambic pentameter, it is a remarkable nineteen lines:

 

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas, 1947

 

Creating One of Your Own

Crafting a villanelle presents us with a couple challenges.  The first, and most important, is to choose a meter and create your refrains. For this, you must use your own poetic judgment and creativity.

Keep in mind that these two lines will echo throughout the body of the poem. They must work together, in both your opening stanza as well as the final statement in the ending quatrain. These two lines must also stand alone, as the final line in each tercet stanza along the way.

I have found that choosing a theme makes it easier to build two rhyming metered lines. For this example I have chosen to use friendship as a theme, and I am going to use iambic pentameter… not because it’s required for the form, but because I like the cadence it produces.

With this in mind, after some deliberation, my two refrain lines will be:

(A1) Hold my hand in yours; we’ll make it through.
(A2) For no one understands me like you do.

This meter decision and the creation of these two lines is the most difficult part of the villanelle crafting process. Once you have written these echoing lines that fit together, you can create the framework of poetic feet that will comprise the poem itself. Following the villanelle’s pattern, I get:

Note: in this pattern, (-) will represent a soft syllable, and (=) will represent a hard one with (|) as a separator between feet.

(A1) Hold my hand in yours; we’ll make it through.
(b)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(A2) For no one understands me like you do.

(a)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(b)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(A1) Hold my hand in yours; we’ll make it through.

(a)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(b)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(A2) For no one understands me like you do.

(a)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(b)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(A1) Hold my hand in yours; we’ll make it through.

(a)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(b)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(A2) For no one understands me like you do.

(a)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(b)  –  = | –  = | –  = | –  = | –  =
(A1) Hold my hand in yours; we’ll make it through.
(A2) For no one understands me like you do.

 

As you can see, we need 5 (a) lines, and 6 (b) lines to complete the poem, and these must flow within the theme. Since I already know the rhyme sound for (a), I chose the following list:  you, too, blue, new, view

I then chose six keywords that rhymed with each other that felt like good accents to this list:  comprehend, friend, pretend, send, mend, end

By plugging these into the pattern, and then creating iambic feet that rounded out the meter, I was able to build a nice poem that fit the theme.

 

Hold My Hand In Yours

Hold my hand in yours; we’ll make it through.
If life becomes too hard to comprehend,
for no one understands me like you do.

Along life’s lonely road, I’ll walk with you.
When times are hard, please know you have a friend.
Hold my hand in yours; we’ll make it through.

I’m here for you. You give me your strength too;
my courage is no longer just pretend,
for no one understands me like you do.

My friend, I’ll cheer you up when you are blue,
A smile, my heart to yours will always send.
Hold my hand in yours; we’ll make it through.

If I am down, you make me feel brand new
You know the way, my broken heart to mend,
for no one understands me like you do.

Though oft times life presents a horrid view,
Together we can face the bitter end.
Hold my hand in yours; we’ll make it through,
for no one understands me like you do.

© 2016, Dusty Grein

 

It may not be Dylan Thomas, but I kind of like the result. It could stand a bit of editing and some polishing, but it is a solid foundation.

As you can see, the crafting of a classic metered poem, even in a form as rigid as the villanelle, is something that can be challenging, yet fun. Writing metered rhymes in these types of forms will help you grow as a poet, and I encourage you to challenge yourself, and see what happens.

Other Villanelles published by the Society of Classical Poets

Apes or Angels
Gospel According to Hoffman-Laroche
Villanelles for Falun Gong Practitioners Persecuted in China
Coming Out, a Holocaust Vilanelle
Camino D’Oro

 

Dusty Grein is an author, poet and graphics designer from Federal Way, Washington. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, where his 15 year old daughter is hard at work securing her college degree while still in high school, and raising him right. When he is not busy writing, he donates a great deal of his time and graphics talent. In honor of his grandson Eddy, lost to SIDS at 13 weeks old, he creates free memorial images for bereaved families, with a special focus on infant and pregnancy loss. His blog, From Grandpa’s Heart… is followed by fans around the world.

 

Related Post

‘Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relatio...   Justice,  Equity  and  Compassion  in  Human  Relations In realms of Humankind’s relations, Justice rules as queen & from her crown, the...

9 Responses

    • Profile photo of Dusty Grein
      Dusty Grein

      You are very welcome. This is actually third in my series of “How To” essays on classic forms. Villanelles can be powerful if they are built with the right imagery 🙂

      Reply
  1. Carol Smallwood

    Thank you very much, Dusty, on the information and also sharing your own villanelle. I’ll try using meter in my next one following your well presented instructions.

    Reply
  2. Pamela

    You did this beautifully. I wrote a villanelle recently on transgender teens of all things, and it is indeed challenging, but fun. Your poem is exquisite and demonstrates the ideas perfectly.

    Reply
  3. Satyananda Sarangi

    Knowing that it’s a mind rattling form, I decided to give it a try. I wrote one a few days ago and I hadn’t read this post until today. After having read the above, I feel i have done a good job.
    Thank you.

    Reply
      • Profile photo of Satyananda Sarangi
        Satyananda Sarangi

        Glad to share it here:

        Here the crooked’s feared, the truthful censured;
        Times of neither autumn nor spring extend,
        But on life’s tree, deeds as fruits are assured.

        True well wishers prefer to be obscured,
        Beyond death, fondness of kin doesn’t transcend;
        Here the crooked’s feared, the truthful censured.

        With grey hair, wealth of justice is secured,
        Yet the blunders of youth cannot be mend;
        But on life’s tree, deeds as fruits are assured.

        Curtains of fame are drawn on eyes allured;
        At transient bliss, rays of vision bend,
        Here the crooked’s feared, the truthful censured.

        Like a sick rose, wrath of love is endured,
        All lovers are meant to lie and pretend;
        But on life’s tree, deeds as fruits are assured.

        Shed a tear! Let forgiveness be procured,
        Since our numbered years steadily ascend;
        Here the crooked’s feared, the truthful censured,
        But on life’s tree, deeds as fruits are assured.

        © 2016, Satyananda Sarangi. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.