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Wheeler English

Lines & Rhymes: Villanelle


A villanelle is a poetic form which entered English-language poetry in the 1800s from the imitation of French models. A villanelle has only two rhyme sounds, and the first and third lines of the first stanza are rhyming refrains that alternate as the third line in each successive stanza and form a couplet at the close. A villanelle is nineteen lines long, consisting of five tercets and one concluding quatrain.

The information at the top of this page is taken, with grateful acknowledgement, from

"Villanelle." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Mar 2007, 01:50 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2 Apr 2007 <>.




The villanelle has no established meter, although most nineteenth-century villanelles had eight or six syllables per line and most twentieth-century villanelles had ten syllables per line. The essence of the fixed modern form is its distinctive pattern of rhyme and repetition. The rhyme-and-refrain pattern of the villanelle can be schematized as A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 where letters ("a" or "A" and "b") indicate the two rhyme sounds, upper case indicates a refrain ("A"), and superscript numerals (1 and 2) indicate Refrain 1 and Refrain 2.

Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 2 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)
Line 4 (a)
Line 5 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 7 (a)
Line 8 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)
Line 10 (a)
Line 11 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 13 (a)
Line 14 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)
Line 16 (a)
Line 17 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Refrain 2 (A2)


Edwin Arlington Robinson's villanelle "The House on the Hill" was first published in The Globe in September 1894.

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.
Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill.
They are all gone away.
Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.
Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,
And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.
There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

Mr. Evenski gratefully acknowledges the source of the rest of this information and wording: the Craft of Poetry Home, Vince Gotera's page for a fall, 2001 course, at the University of Northern Iowa

This is Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." It is one of the most famous villanelles and, while Thomas does not experiment much with the form, the poem is a great example of how villanelle repetition works. The boldface and italics are there to more easily show the repeated lines and demonstrate the structure of the poem.

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.


Villanelles are a nightmare; there is no other way to say it. The form is originally French and didn't appear in English until the later 1800's. It is 19 lines long, but only uses two rhymes, while also repeating two lines throughout the poem. The first five stanzas are triplets, and the last stanza is a quatrain such that the rhyme scheme is as follows: "aba aba aba aba aba abaa." The tricky part is that the 1st and 3rd lines from the first stanza are alternately repeated such that the 1st line becomes the last line in the second stanza, and the 3rd line becomes the last line in the third stanza. The last two lines of the poem are lines 1 and 3 respectively, making a rhymed couplet. Confused? A villanelle needs no particulary meter or line length, so feel free to experiment with the form. It is terribly obsessive and can bring out the emotions of any neurotic writer.

The terzanelle is a modified villanelle. It uses the terza rima's interlocked rhyme pattern, but fits the villanelle form of five triplets and a quatrain. In addition, the middle line of the 1st stanza becomes the third line of the next stanza, and so on, such that the terzanelle is a huge pain, but worth the effort and determination to finish.

Because the repeated line changes and the rhyme sounds change (according to terza rima structure) the terzanelle is a less obsessive poem than the villanelle whose repetetion can be overpowering. A terzanelle's repetetion is more subtle and can give the poem a lush texture that a harsh repeater-poem cannot do. Terzanelle's are difficult to write, but fun to play with. This is Lewis Turco's "Terzanelle in Thunderweather"

This is the moment when shadows gather
under the elms, the cornices and eaves.
This is the center of thunderweather.

The birds are quiet among these white leaves
where wind stutters, starts, then moves steadily
under the elms, the cornices, and eaves--

these are our voices speaking guardedly
about the sky, of the sheets of lightning
where wind stutters, starts, then moves steadily

into our lungs, across our lips, tightening
our throats. Our eyes are speaking in the dark
about the sky, of the sheets of lightening

that illuminate moments. In the stark
shades we inhibit, there are no words for
our throats. Our eyes are speaking in the dark

of things we cannot say, cannot ignore.
This is the moment when shadows gather,
shades we inhibit. There are no words, for
this is the center of thunderweather.  

How To and Examples
A strong villanelle is tied together with line breaks and refrains that make sense. Experimenting with line break (enjambment) can take the edge off the repetition of the refrain making the refrain more intereseting and less stock. As well, the refrain should be part of the poem, the natural next line when possible, otherwise the whole of the poem suffers. Some poets take great liberty with diction and syntax in their refrains, like Marilyn Hacker, for example, who adds or subtracts a few words and moves the caesura to add punch to repeated lines. Try to lead into those lines to make them part of the poem, otherwise the difficulty of the villanelle will have you very frustrated. I know this because my first villanelles failed to do this. This is an example from a bad poem I called "Cat Killing"

A cat creeps from the comfort of its sill,
One paw in the cactus pot, the other out of sight,
Do not read this poem against your will.

A feather falls slowly, a cat with feel,
In the corner, rat-razor fangs filing for a strike,
Red words are designed to kill.

That's terrible, really bad. The refrains (lines 3 and 6) do nothing for the rest of the poem, it's almost like two poems, and there is no enjambment at all. These two stanzas are a good example of how not to write a villanelle. Look above to Dylan Thomas or Lewis Turco to see how to become a villanelle master.


Online Examples and Resources:

-- Damon McLaughlin