A Guide to Poetry #2: Verse Forms #2: Villanelle

The Story So Far

1. Foot, Metrics, Prosody and Scansion

1.1 General Overview

1.2 Anglophonic metrics

1.3 Romance languages

1.4 Classical languages

2. Verse Forms

2.1 Sestina

The villanelle first entered Anglophone poetry via imitation of the French, and is far more popular in English, associated with the decadent movement in the 1890s. It is nineteen lines long, composed of five tercets and one concluding quatrain: (5×3)+4=19.

It has only two rhyme sounds. 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.

The villanelle, because of its tight form and non-linear structure, resists narrative development. They do not tell a story, or establish a conversational tone. I’m going to find this particularly difficult.

There isn’t an established meter, but most 19th century villanelles used either trimeter or tetrameter and most 20th century ones used pentameter. The rhyme-and-refrain pattern can be denoted as A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 where letters (“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.


Examples

 


The House on the Hill


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.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1894

This is a typical example of an 1890s villanelle in that it is written in trimeter.

 

Do not Go Gentle into That Good Night


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.

Dylan Thomas

Thomas’ poem is perhaps the most famous and celebrated villanelle of all.


ÆÆA

I’d take a galley to the far, far west,

If I could but escape this world of care,

To a remote isle by the sunset blest.

Like ancients past, askim the ocean crest

In search of ambergris and gemstones rare,

I’d take a galley to the far, far west.

For other riches would I sail in quest,

For this world”s wealth to me brings but despair,

To a remote isle by the sunset blest.

Ulysses came to Circe, raven-tressed,

Found magic that, for just one chance to share,

I’d take a galley to the far, far west.

For timeless myths and dreams to me seem best;

I’d swift escape the world’s mechanic fair,

To a remote isle by the sunset blest.

To die at last, and there to take my rest,

Forgetting all but Circe’s perfumed hair,

I’d take a galley to the far, far west,

To a remote isle by the sunset blest.

Steve Moore, 2004


Let’s give it a go!

 

There’s No Reason For the Earth Still Turning

1

There’s no reason for the earth still turning

Meaning has left me now my love is gone,

Now all that is left is loss and yearning.

2

It’s experience, you are just learning,”

The wise ones hollow words drone on and on.

There’s no reason for the earth still turning.

3

My passion simmers, where once was burning

The clouds are leaden where the sun once shone

Now all that is left is loss and yearning.

4

Hurt drapes down, like a blanket unfurling

Over my unkind heart, for hope there’s none;

There’s no reason for the earth still turning.

5

Words don’t comfort, after my love’s spurning

There’s nothing for my soul to rest upon

Now all that is left is loss and yearning.

6

Within my breast, dark, bleak seas are churning,

The land recedes back as the storms come on.

There’s no reason for the earth still turning

Now all that is left is loss and yearning.

Laurence Thompson, 11th December 2011


Closing thoughts

I composed my villanelle first by choosing the lines to be repeated. I think they work best in a villanelle where A is just the affirmation of B and vice versa. I then typed them out, where they were going to be in the poem, and then wrote down a rhyme bank, all the words that rhyme with “turning” that could possibly be useful.

It’s sort of a prequel to the sestina I composed before, An Evening’s Meander Upon the Hill – the spurned lover has not yet come to terms with his/her loss. I’ve deliberately not capitalised the word “earth,” as I hope it will be ambiguous as to whether s/he means the planet or the ground. “Earth” to me suggests soil, which suggests burial and peat and other macabre things, as if s/he’s mourning the death of his/her love. The land, which has been turning throughout, suggesting turmoil, finally recedes from the storms in the last stanza, the concluding quatrain.

The repetition of the villanelle seems to lend itself a soft hystericalism, if there is such a thing. Like in the Robinson poem: the narrator is so moved by the abandonment of the house he seems shaken, and it confers an extra meaning and memory to the house. The villanelles that take advantage of this, like the Robinson and Thomas ones, generally seem superior to ones that don’t, such as mine or Moore’s

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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

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