A villanelle is a poetic form which entered English language poetry in the late 1800s from the imitation of French models. Although it is one of the most technically demanding and difficult of all verse-forms, the villanelle has become in the last century one of the most popular forms of English poetry. Traditionally speaking, a villanelle is a poem of 19 lines written in six stanzas. The first stanza of a villanelle is of particular importance, because the first and third lines of the first stanza are alternatively repeated as the last line of each of the following stanzas. In the last stanza, which is four lines in length, both the first and third lines are included as the concluding couplet of the poem. This restraint puts an immense amount of strain on the first and third lines of the poem, as they must be versatile enough to be repeated several times at different points in the poem without becoming redundant or meaningless. Ideally, the repeated lines of the villanelle should be subtle enough that as each line is repeated its meaning continues to change and evolve. In addition to this restraint, the non-repeated lines of the villanelle must rhyme with each other.
Perhaps because of its formal complexity, the villanelle has become a sort of tour-de-force for English poets, and it has remained popular since its introduction in the nineteenth century. A number of poets of distinction have made their attempts at the form and produced beautiful poems in the process, including Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas. In recent decades, the villanelle has only increased in popularity. Many contemporary poets have made slight adjustments to the form, such as dropping the restriction of 19 lines per poem, or rephrasing the repeated lines slightly with each repetition; all of these changes have only increased the villanelle's accessibility to modern audiences, and it continues to be one of the most interesting verse-forms in the history of English poetry.
Many published works mistakenly claim that the strict modern form of the villanelle originated with the medieval troubadours, but in fact medieval and Renaissance villanelles were simple ballad-like songs with no fixed form or length. Such songs were associated with the country and were thought to be sung by farmers and shepherds, in contrast to the more complex madrigals associated with the more sophisticated city and court life. The French word villanelle comes from the Italian word villanella, which derives from the Latin villa (farm) and villano (farmhand); to any poet before the mid-nineteenth century, the word villanelle or villanella would have simply meant "country song," with no particular form implied. The modern nineteen-line dual-refrain form of the villanelle derives from nineteenth-century admiration of the only Renaissance poem in that form—a poem about a turtledove by Jean Passerat (1534–1602) entitled "Villanelle." The chief French popularizer of the villanelle form was the nineteenth-century author Théodore de Banville.
Although the villanelle is usually labeled "a French form," by far the majority of villanelles are in English. Edmund Gosse, influenced by Théodore de Banville, was the first English writer to praise the villanelle and bring it into fashion with his 1877 essay "A Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse." Gosse, Henry Austin Dobson, Oscar Wilde, and Edwin Arlington Robinson were among the first English practitioners. Most modernists disdained the villanelle, which became associated with the overwrought and sentimental aestheticism and formalism of the 1800s. James Joyce included a villanelle ostensibly written by his adolescent fictional alter-ego Stephen Dedalus in his 1914 novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, probably to show the immaturity of Stephen's literary abilities. William Empson revived the villanelle more seriously in the 1930s, and his contemporaries and friends W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas also picked up the form. Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night" is perhaps the most renowned villanelle of all. Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath wrote villanelles in the 1950s and 1960s, and Elizabeth Bishop wrote a particularly famous and influential villanelle, "One Art," in 1976. The villanelle reached an unprecedented level of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of the New Formalism. Since then, many contemporary poets have written villanelles, and they have often varied the form in innovative ways.
The villanelle has no established meter, although most nineteenth-century villanelles had eight or six syllables per line and most twentieth-century villanelles have ten syllables per line. The essence of the form is its distinctive pattern of rhyme and repetition, with only two rhyme-sounds ("a" and "b") and two alternating refrains that resolve into a concluding couplet. The following is the schematic representation of a villanelle in its fixed modern form; letters in parentheses ("a" and "b") indicate rhyme.
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