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Writing

How to Write a Villanelle: 7 Examples of Villanelles

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 14, 2020 • 2 min read

In the sixteenth century, French poet Jean Passerat wrote the first villanelle, "J'ay perdu ma Tourterelle" (“I Lost My Turtle Dove”). The villanelle form was intended to imitate the rustic Italian villanella (derived from the Italian word “villano” meaning “peasant”) dance songs of the era, but only began following a fixed-form rhyme scheme later on in the nineteenth century.

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What Is a Villanelle?

The villanelle is a specific poetic form that uses repeated lines and a strict rhyming pattern throughout its 19 lines, which are grouped into six separate stanzas. Villanelles have a lyrical quality to them, creating a song-like poem with their structured lines.

7 Examples of Villanelles

Throughout the decades, various writers of different genres have written their own villanelles. There are many famous examples of villanelle poems penned by notable authors:

  1. “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas emphasizes the need to experience a full life before its end.
  2. “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke delves into the feeling of waking from sleep, with the narrator declaring.
  3. “The House on the Hill” by Edwin Arlington Robinson compares the speaker’s past with that of a dilapidated, broken house, with the repetition of lines like “there is nothing more to say” signaling his desire to let it go and move on.
  4. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop discusses how to deal with the pain of loss.
  5. “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath talks of a love the narrator experienced that she isn’t sure she imagined or not. Through repetition, she emphasizes how uncertain the speaker is on the realness of what she felt.
  6. “If I Could Tell You” by W. H. Auden describes how only time can tell what can and will happen in the future. It was written after the start of World War II, and was a commentary on the uncertainty experienced during the time.
  7. “Theocritus” by Oscar Wilde provides a take on Greek poet Theocritus’s depiction of lovers.
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How to Write a Villanelle: 4 Components of Villanelle Structure

Villanelles create a melody with words, crafting imagery and emotion through the power of repetition. To write your own contemporary villanelle poem, follow the structure below:

  1. Length: A villanelle is 19 lines broken up into five tercets (three-line stanzas), with the sixth stanza containing four lines. When it comes to the individual lines, there isn’t a specific length or meter, though many poets like to use iambic pentameter.
  2. Rhyme scheme: Each tercet of a villanelle’s rhyme scheme contains an ABA rhyme scheme, except for the final stanza, which follows an ABAA rhyme scheme.
  3. Repetition: The first line of the first stanza is a refrain line that gets reused throughout the poem. It is the same as the last line of the second and fourth stanza, as well as the penultimate line of the last stanza. The third line of the poem serves as the last line of the third stanza, fifth stanza, and final stanza. This means that many of the lines of your villanelle have already been written after you’ve completed the first stanza.
  4. Ending: The last stanza is a final quatrain, ending with a couplet (which means the final line of this stanza should rhyme with the one before it).

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