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Rhyming Poetry: How to Write a Villanelle

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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Villanelle poems were typically written about pastoral subjects such as in this painting titled Flock of Sheep

Villanelle poems were typically written about pastoral subjects such as in this painting titled Flock of Sheep

Villanelles Use Rhyme and Refrains

Ever heard of a villanelle? It's a poetic form that began back in 1606 when the French writer Jean Passerat wrote the poem "Villanelle - J'ay perdu ma Tourterelle" (Translation: I've lost my turtledove).

Passerat's poem is believed to be the first example of a villanelle. He wrote other villanelles after this one, but they didn't necessarily stick to the same format. So when future poets latched on to the form for their own purposes, it was this original version they aspired to imitate.

How a Villanelle Is Constructed

A villanelle is a 19-line poem with a fixed rhyme scheme. The long version of that rhyme scheme is as follows:

  • A1 (refrain), b, A2 (refrain)
  • a, b, A1 (refrain)
  • a, b, A2 (refrain)
  • a, b, A1 (refrain)
  • a, b, A2 (refrain)
  • a, b, A1, A2 (refrain)

If you find that confusing, here's the short version:

  • aba, aba, aba, aba, aba, abaa

This second version is easier to remember, as long as you keep in kind the two important points that a strict villanelle should observe:

  1. It must have a pair of lines that rhyme and are at the heart of the poem's meaning (these are the refrains A1 and A2)
  2. It must include an alternative rhyme (b) to add depth and contrast to the refrains

As long as these two criteria are met, there's a good chance your villanelle will be a success.

How to Write a Villanelle

To write your own villanelle, start with the basics. Here's what you'll need:

  1. A rhyming couplet—a pair of lines that will become your two refrains
  2. An alternate rhyme to provide contrast and development

For example, suppose you wanted to write a villanelle about reading poetry. Your two refrains might go something like this:

  1. Good poetry can set your soul on fire
  2. The truth that burns to challenge and inspire

Now, you need another rhyme scheme to offset the -ire rhyme which, you'll notice, starts and ends every stanza. In fact, it takes up 16 of the 19 possible lines. That means the alternate rhyme has to be at least strong enough to compete, although it can still be related. Here's an example:

  • To read between the lines and find the core

The word "core" also ends with the letters r and e, but because the "o" sound is quite different, it works. Let's put these together now to create the first stanza:

Good poetry can set your soul on fire
To read between the lines and find the core
The truth that burns to challenge and inspire

Now let's take this basic material and use it to construct a villanelle.

Villanelles can be about any subject you choose, from art to zoology, or even poetry itself

Villanelles can be about any subject you choose, from art to zoology, or even poetry itself

An Example: Why Read Poetry?

Good poetry can set your soul on fire;
To read between the lines and find the core,
The truth that burns to challenge and inspire;

Pursuit as pure as any might desire,
Such phrases that remain for evermore,
Good poetry can set your soul on fire;

Succinct, abrupt, melodic, full of ire,
Replete with meaning and with metaphor,
The truth that burns to challenge and inspire;

Such sounds as heavenly as any choir,
With syllables that search out every pore;
Good poetry can set your soul on fire;

No song more potent, no ambition higher,
Than those apt phrases meant to underscore
The truth that burns to challenge and inspire;

An art form we seem destined to require
To guide us, our humanity restore,
The truth that burns to challenge and inspire;
Good poetry can set your soul on fire.

Well-Known Villanelles by Famous Authors

One of the most famous poems in English written in the villanelle form is "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas.

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.

Thomas' poem was written for his dying father. To get an idea of the range of subjects that suit the style, have a look at the villanelle below written by Sylvia Plath.

"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.)

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and 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.)

What's a Tercet? A Quatrain?

  • A tercet is simply 3 lines of poetry. Those three lines could form a stanza, as in the villanelle, or they could form the entire poem, as in a haiku.
  • A quatrain, likewise, is simply 4 lines of poetry, either a stanza or a short poem.

Where the Word Villanelle Comes From

There has been some confusion about the origins of the word villanelle. This is partly due to its similarity to the word "villanella" which is an Italian country song. Most scholars now agree that villanelle refers to any Italian or Spanish folk song based on rustic themes. Ironically, though, the first villanelle was written by a Frenchman. C'est la vie.

These days, subject is less important. It doesn't matter what topic your villanelle explores, as long as you follow the formula. 5 tercets and one quatrain. Or, if you're so inclined, you might use it as a jumping-off point to create your own form of poetry.

Why They Are Challenging to Write

Ready to try your hand at writing a villanelle? Some of the greatest writers in the English language have attempted the form, putting themselves to the test. If you fancy doing the same, here are the things you need to be aware of:

  • The rhyme scheme: once you get your pair of refrains, check and make sure there are plenty of words that rhyme. You wouldn't want to get halfway through only to have to scrap it and start over.
  • The rhyme scheme: yes, again! The last word on the final line of each stanza has to rhyme with the last word on the first line of the next stanza. Not impossible, but worth remembering.
  • The rhyming couplet: you'll notice that in each of the poems above, the rhyming couplet (or refrains) form the last two lines of the poem. To do that, they have to make sense. It's not enough for them to rhyme - they have to also convey a thought or idea when they're read one after the other.

From Within James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"

Finally, here's the villanelle found in Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man":

Stephen Daedalus’ “Villanelle of the Temptress”

Are you not weary of ardent ways,
Lure of the fallen seraphim?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze
And you have had your will of him.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

Above the flame the smoke of praise
Goes up from ocean rim to rim.
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Our broken cries and mournful lays
Rise in one eucharistic hymn.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

While sacrificing hands upraise
The chalice flowing to the brim,
Tell no more of enchanted days.

And still you hold our longing gaze
With languorous look and lavish limb!
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

P.S. Don't forget to take the quiz below!

Take the Quiz!

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. A villanelle is:
    • A small bit of vanilla
    • A type of poetry
    • A female villain
  2. A villanelle should have:
    • 19 lines
    • 19 syllables
    • 19 metric feet
  3. The very first villanelle was written by:
    • William Shakespeare
    • Roald Dahl
    • Jean Passerat
  4. The villanelle became popular in the:
    • 18th century
    • 19th century
    • 20th century
  5. How many different rhymes does a villanelle have?
    • Two hundred
    • Two dozen
    • Two
  6. What are the 3-line stanzas found in villanelles called?
    • Triplets
    • Tercets
    • Marmosets
  7. Which best describes the final stanza of a villanelle?
    • A freight train with a rhyming couplet
    • 4 lines that don't rhyme with each other
    • A quatrain with a rhyming couplet
  8. What subjects can a quatrain be written about?
    • Pastoral subjects
    • Personal problems
    • Relationship issues
    • Any of the above

Answer Key

  1. A type of poetry
  2. 19 lines
  3. Jean Passerat
  4. 19th century
  5. Two
  6. Tercets
  7. A quatrain with a rhyming couplet
  8. Any of the above

Comments

Charlie Halliday from Scotland on December 20, 2019:

Thank you John for your feedback much appreciated

JohnMello (author) from England on December 19, 2019:

I just read your poem and left you a comment there )

Charlie Halliday from Scotland on December 19, 2019:

Hi John.

I had written a villanelle based on my recovery from addiction and mental health problems. I came across your article and would appreciate your critique on my attempt called Spread Your Wings

JohnMello (author) from England on October 22, 2015:

Thanks for your comments justthemessenger. Glad you enjoyed it :)

James C Moore from The Great Midwest on October 21, 2015:

I cant wait to try my hand at Villanelle style poetry. I think I've heard about this before, possibly from school. You have provided a real good introduction of how to do this. Good hub information worthy of a HOTD honor. (hub of the day)

JohnMello (author) from England on October 21, 2015:

Thanks Kristen. Yay for me!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on October 21, 2015:

John, congrats on HOTD, since I commented on this, months ago! This hub deserves it, because it teaches you how to write a villanelle with step-by-step instructions. It does take practice and time and effort. Well done!

JohnMello (author) from England on April 09, 2015:

Thanks Kristen for reading & voting up!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 09, 2015:

Great hub John on villanelles. IMO, they are one of the hardest forms of poetry to write, like the limericks. Voted up for useful!

Audrey Howitt from California on March 03, 2015:

I may do that!

JohnMello (author) from England on March 03, 2015:

Thanks for reading Audrey. I don't know of any, but that's probably because the rhyming couplet is made up of the two refrains, which rhyme with each other. But you could always write your own and start a whole new fad :-)

Audrey Howitt from California on March 02, 2015:

A difficult form--Do you know of any without the rhyming couplets??

JohnMello (author) from England on February 27, 2015:

Thanks Catherine for reading and sharing. I'll do the same for you :)

JohnMello (author) from England on February 27, 2015:

Thanks Catherine for reading and sharing. I'll do the same for you :)

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on February 27, 2015:

I have written a villanelle. Just one villanelle. They are hard to write. You did a great job with your villanelle about writing poetry. I've done some hubs on poetry. You might like the one I did on found poetry. Voted up and shared.

JohnMello (author) from England on February 26, 2015:

Thanks MarleneB... glad you enjoyed it!

Marlene Bertrand from USA on February 26, 2015:

Your lesson is very thorough. I have never heard of this style of poetry. It seems like such a challenge to write a poem in this style; at the same time, it is a joy to read.

JohnMello (author) from England on February 26, 2015:

Gloriousconfusion - thanks for reading and for sharing!

Diana Grant from United Kingdom on February 26, 2015:

Good information to keep for reference - I only got 7/8 right, even though I actually wrote a vilanelle Forced Marriage https://discover.hubpages.com/politics/forced-marr... . I've added a link there to this article

JohnMello (author) from England on February 25, 2015:

Thank you all for your comments and feedback. And travmaj, thanks for spotting that typo. Appreciate it. I've fixed it now :)

Shobhana Achari on February 25, 2015:

Useful information that can make any one think of writing poems and bring out their talents.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on February 25, 2015:

Great hub!

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on February 25, 2015:

Wonderful poetry. I enjoyed it very much. You have given a detailed and beautiful description of the style of villanelle with ample examples. But I scored only 75% in the quizz because of stating that it consists unrhyming 4 lines stanza at the end. The supplementary question also I ticked for pastoral poetry.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Voted up and awesome.

travmaj from australia on February 25, 2015:

Love the villanelle style of poetry. Your hub is particularly pleasing and informative. Just one point - Dylan Thomas wrote Do not go gentle into that good night - to his dying father. I suspect a typo with the Thomas factor. Hope you don't mind me pointing this out.

JohnMello (author) from England on February 20, 2015:

Thanks Pennyforyourthots... glad you enjoyed it!

Pennyforyourthots on February 19, 2015:

Wonderful hub on the villanelle! I loved your villanelle on writing poetry. I myself favor free verse (though I do especially enjoy writing poetry with meter), but there's nothing like writing poetry with a fixed rhyme scheme. I love the challenge and the rhymes. Thanks for sharing this topic!