Villanelle Poems: Definition, Examples, and How to Write Them

When it comes to poetic forms, the villanelle is a unique and captivating style. With its distinctive structure and melodic repetition, the villanelle offers poets a challenging yet rewarding way to express their thoughts and emotions.

In this guide, we will explore the world of the villanelle, exploring its definition, history, structure, and common themes, and even provide examples of famous villanelle poems.

Whether you are a seasoned poet or a beginner looking to explore new forms, this guide will equip you with the knowledge and skills to master writing villanelle poems.

What is a Villanelle?

A villanelle is a structured poem consisting of 19 lines, divided into five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a final quatrain (four-line stanza). What sets the villanelle apart from other poetic forms is its intricate pattern of repetition. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are alternately repeated as the final line of each subsequent tercet, and then come together as the poem’s last two lines. This repetition creates a musical quality, emphasizing specific themes or ideas in the poem.

Villanelles can explore a wide range of themes, but some common themes often found in this form of poetry include love, loss, time, and the passage of seasons.

The repetition in the villanelle allows the poet to deeper explore these themes, emphasizing their significance and creating a sense of longing or melancholy. The form’s cyclical nature, with the repeated lines echoing throughout the poem, adds to the exploration of these themes, creating a sense of inevitability or perpetual longing.

History of the Villanelle

The origins of the villanelle can be traced back to 16th-century France and Italy, where it was initially a rustic dance song. Over time, it evolved into a poetic form and gained popularity among poets.

The term “villanelle” itself is derived from the Italian word “villanella,” meaning “country song” or “peasant song.” In the 19th and 20th centuries, renowned poets like Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath further popularized the villanelle by crafting remarkable examples of this form.

Related: Sound Devices in Poetry

Villanelle Structure

The structure of a villanelle is what makes it both challenging and captivating. As mentioned earlier, it consists of 19 lines divided into five tercets and a final quatrain. The rhyme scheme is ABA for the tercets, with the first and third lines of the opening tercet repeated throughout the poem. The quatrain at the end follows a different rhyme scheme, usually ABAA.

Here is the villanelle structure displayed vertically:

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This strict structure requires careful planning and a deep understanding of how repetition can evoke different emotions and meanings within the poem. Feel free to copy and paste the guide above into a document to use as you practice writing a Villanelle.

Examples of Villanelle Poems

To truly grasp the beauty and power of the villanelle, let’s explore some examples of famous villanelle poems written in this form. In the first example from Sylvia Plath, we’ve placed the Villanelle rhyme scheme alongside it for a visual aid.

Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead,
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary darkness gallops in.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head).

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and enter Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said.
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head).

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head).

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One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Our Editor’s Take

These poems showcase the unique structure and emotional depth achieved through the villanelle form. I love their length and the intention that comes with it. Additionally, the structure of villanelle poetry demands writers to get creative with form, and don’t we need that every once in awhile? – R. R. Noall

How to Write a Villanelle Poem

Writing a villanelle requires careful planning and attention to detail.

Here is a step-by-step guide to help you write your own villanelle:

  1. Choose a theme or concept that resonates with you. The theme you choose will serve as the foundation for your poem.
  2. Determine the rhyme scheme and structure of the villanelle. Remember to follow the ABA pattern for the tercets and the ABAA pattern for the quatrain.
  3. Select two lines that will be repeated throughout the poem. These lines should capture the essence of your chosen theme.
  4. Begin writing the opening tercet, incorporating one of the repeated lines as the final line. This will establish the tone and mood of your poem.
  5. Move on to the subsequent tercets, alternating between the two repeated lines as the final lines.
  6. Save the repeated lines for the final quatrain, where they will come together to create a powerful conclusion.
  7. Revise and edit your villanelle, paying attention to the flow, rhythm, and overall impact of the repetition.

Villanelle FAQS

What is the difference between a villanelle and a sonnet?

While both villanelles and sonnets are poetic forms, they differ in structure and rhyme scheme. A sonnet typically consists of 14 lines divided into an octave and a sestet, with a specific rhyme scheme. On the other hand, a villanelle has 19 lines divided into tercets and a quatrain, with a distinct pattern of repetition.

Can I deviate from the traditional villanelle structure?

Yes, poets often experiment with the villanelle form, introducing slight variations in structure or rhyme scheme. However, it is important to understand the traditional structure before attempting any deviations, as it provides a solid foundation for crafting a powerful villanelle.

Are there any famous contemporary villanelles?

Contemporary poets continue exploring and embracing the villanelle form. Some notable examples include “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath and “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke.

Conclusion

The villanelle is a poetic form that offers a unique and challenging way to express complex emotions and ideas. With its intricate structure and melodic repetition, the villanelle captivates poets and readers. By understanding the definition, history, structure, and common themes of the villanelle and exploring examples of famous poems, you are now equipped to embark on your own journey of mastering this art form.

So, pick up your pen, let your creativity flow, and immerse yourself in the beauty of the villanelle.

If you’re ready to unleash your poetic potential, start writing your own villanelle today. Explore our calls for submissions today!

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