A to Z Day 22: Villanelle


The villanelle is a very strict poetic structure. It’s one of the most challenging forms of short poem I’ve ever attempted to write. I started trying to write one for this post on Monday – what could be better than that?

I gave it up on Tuesday, because I realized that if I tried to actually post a credible villanelle – even one that was pure doggerel – I would still be writing it this time next week. When the villanelle works, the payoff is well worth the effort. When it doesn’t, you end up with something that’s just repetitive. Rigidly-structured writing is DIFFICULT.

The villanelle seems simple enough:

Nineteen lines composed of five three-line stanzas (tercets) and a quatrain at the end.

The rhyme scheme is ABA for the tercets and ABAA for the quatrain.
The first and third lines are repeated as alternating refrains in the second through the fifth stanzas, and used together as a couplet for the final two lines of the poem. The repetition accounts for eight of the 19 lines, if I counted correctly. This gets you a structure which looks like this:

Line 1 (First Refrain) – A
Line 2 – B
Line 3 (Second Refrain) – A

Click for A to Z blog list.

Click for A to Z blog list.

Line 4 – A
Line 5 – B
Line 6 – (First Refrain) – A

Line 7 – A
Line 8 – B
Line 9 – (Second Refrain) – A

Line 10 – A
Line 11 – B
Line 12 – (First Refrain) – A

Line 13 – A
Line 14 – B
Line 15 – (Second Refrain) – A

Line 16 – A
Line 17 – B
Line 18 – (First Refrain) – A
Line 19 – (Second Refrain) – A

Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is my favorite. Here’s an awesome reading of it. The reading is part of a much longer video, with Octavio Paz quotes and other cool stuff. I recommend watching it the from the beginning, but if you want to view just the reading, skip to 1:15 and wait15 seconds. It’s worth it.

Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is perhaps the most well-known villanelle. It’s the first one I ever read and recognized as a strictly structured piece of verse. Here’s the Anthony Hopkins version, which almost does it justice:

If you know any villanelles worth sharing, or have written one yourself,  I’m happy for you to drop titles or links to them on the thread.

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About Gene'O

Compulsive writer, amateur photographer, and blogaholic. Also an evil genius.

6 thoughts on “A to Z Day 22: Villanelle

  1. This was very interesting. I’d not come across this structure before so thank you for explaining it so well.

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  2. I’ve never heard of the Villanelle, but I have to say it’s aptly named given it’s so difficult 😉

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  3. Gene’O, have you tried a sestina? Things get a little more complex. That said, when I had to write a ghazal for a class last semester, that was the hardest one — it was hard to pull off, in part because it doesn’t fully translate culturally, I think. I wrote a villanelle for that class, too, — about Superman. 🙂 It was good fun. Remind me to show it to you some time.
    Anyway, glad to see you playing with poetry. And yes, Bishop is wonderful.

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  4. […] 4: Revision – Social – Tone – Utopian – Villanelle – […]

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  5. […] 4: Revision – Social – Tone – Utopian – Villanelle – […]

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