Villanelle is a form of poetry. For an example see 'Do not go gentle into that good night'.

I have indicated the structure of a villanelle below. a,A1,A2 rhyme, as do all b's. A1 and A2 are the theme lines that are repeated throughout. / indicates a new line.







The villanelle is a French form of verse, originating from the 15th or 16th century, and enthusiastically adopted by a number of poets writing in English over the centuries, up to the present day. Still, the villanelle is relatively obscure, and if it were not for Dylan Thomas’ "Do not go gentle into that good night", only academics might be able to recognize one.

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

A dainty thing's the Villanelle,
Sly, musical, a jewel in rhyme,
It serves its purpose passing well.

A double-clappered silver bell
That must be made to clink in chime,
A dainty thing's the Villanelle;

And if you wish to flute a spell,
Or ask a meeting 'neath the lime,
It serves its purpose passing well.

You must not ask of it the swell
Of organs grandiose and sublime -
A dainty thing's the Villanelle;

And, filled with sweetness, as a shell
Is filled with sound, and launched in time,
It serves its purpose passing well.

Still fair to see and good to smell
As in the quaintness of its prime,
A dainty thing's the Villanelle,
It serves its purpose passing well.

The villanelle is a dainty thing, you bet: It's about as artificial and affected as poetic forms get, but in the right hands (William Ernest Henley above got away with it), it's a fine thing -- and a writer like Dylan Thomas can even get the real deep rumble in it, when he's in top form.

But oh, I'm not here to tell you about good poets. I'm here to tell you about a lousy one, James Joyce, a man who showed good judgement in turning to prose.

Joyce gives us this villanelle in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by way of showing just how pretentious and annoying that Young Man was:

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 langorous look and lavish limb!
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

The repetition saves a lot of typing. The Mass imagery is a bit weird, and the conflation of the BVM with the love object is downright peculiar. Well, we were all young once.

In addition to the definitions above:
The Villanelle was some sort of game in the medieval times of France. It was made to be usually sung or spoken by 3 to 4 people with or without instruments. It was especially popular in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Villanelle of the Onion

The onion's just the way I've always been:
Cracked crumpled armadillo-flesh outside
the countless husks of bottle-glass green skin,

outside a hidden heart I can't begin
to sculpt a better metaphor to hide;
The onion's just. The way I've always been,

my keeping reeking layers deep within
revealed the rest. Who wouldn't weep with pride?
The countless husks of bottle-glass green skin

are bent with pent-up pungent tears again,
from days of smiling dryly while I lied.
The onion's just that way. I've always been

ashamed of that, inside--and always in-
sincere about it to myself. I tried
to count the husks of bottle-glass green skin,

and failed. I never let my friends get in,
for fear they'd flee and finally decide:
"The onion's in the way." I've always been
these countless husks of bottle-glass green skin.

Just a brief addendum to the formal explanations above:

The villanelle, like the sestina, is really a metapoetic form, which is a fancy way of saying that it's so highly stylized that it ends up pointing out the artifice in all poetry.

What this really translates to is a form dearly beloved of conservative poetry MFAs, since it allows the author to simultaneously play off a tradition and mock it.  In this way the villanelle form is tiringly postmodern. Writing this type of poetry is actually fairly easy, since the only real prerequisites for carving out a villanelle are the ability to rhyme and a knack for iambic pentameter.  One does not need to be daring or even original when writing in such an elevated form - the simple fact that you've written a villanelle is enough to impress a good many readers and, of course, the occasional poetry journal editor.  Sure, you have to make sure it's not painful to read, but other than that you've got it made.  This is intended as a dig at the poetry establishment, not at any particular writer.

Most people, including poetry students, really get by on three villanelles: "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas, "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop, and "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke.  Obsessed fans of Sylvia Plath would really like to add "Mad Girl's Love Song" to that list, but it ain't happening since it's aggressively end-stopped, and the overuse of parentheses to get around what would otherwise be a cumbersome treatment of the repeated lines is widely considered cheating.

A backwards villanelle, by which I mean that while the rules of the villanelle pertaining to repetition have been followed, the rhymes are to be found at the beginning of lines rather than at the end. Just to illustrate my point that forms aren't necessarily static, and that experimentation with structure shouldn't begin and end with free verse. The poem's a little messy and confused, as it stands, but I still kind of have a deep affection for it. It works; sort of.

I strongly suspect this was written at a time when I used to indulge in 'poetry marathons'. That is, I would stay up all night drinking fizzy drinks and feverishly writing until collapsing in a heap on the keyboard. Hence the intentionally wobbly syntax, I guess, and of course the flagrant lack of capitalisation.

it is not plasma but poetry

backwards heartbeat racing at that point now
thudding pulse meets joint and puckers skin i
crack out spirals on the wooden table.

hacking bone from hide to form my words and
scud them swiftly to my elbow’s crook: my
backwards heartbeat races at that point now.

whacking pretty phrases on my brow and
flooding flesh with sparkling grits of wit, i
crack out spirals on the wooden table.

stacking speech on speech i raise up poems
budding violent blue like all my veins but
backwards heartbeat races through those points now.

tacky fingers tap the pulse but they’re just
mud compared to if my touchless mind could
crack out spirals on the wooden table.

lacking tools to rip my skin i search through
blood and hidden in my heart i find a

backwards heartbeat racing at that point i
crack out spirals on the wooden table.

Vil`la*nelle" (?), n. [F.]

A poem written in tercets with but two rhymes, the first and third verse of the first stanza alternating as the third verse in each successive stanza and forming a couplet at the close.

E. W. Gosse.


© Webster 1913.

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