Week Twenty-Three: The Villanelle

Introduction

This 19th century French form uses the circular, controlled repetition of a refrain to allow repeated lines to take on new meaning as the poem progresses. The pastoral elements found in the Italian folk songs that traditionally inspired the form have been stripped away and the topics explored in the modern villanelle now vary greatly. Popular modern villanelles include Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” (shared below).

Painting by Ferdinand Chaigneau [fr], 19th century. Wikimedia.

Villanelle Example

Although Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” is likely the most widely-known modern villanelle (and one I love and admire), I personally have an equal—perhaps even greater—response to Roethke’s 1953 work, “The Waking.”

The Waking by Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?   
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do   
To you and me; so take the lively air,   
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   
What falls away is always. And is near.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

Requirements of the Form

Requirements adapted from The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.

Form

– Consists of five stanzas of three lines (tercets), followed by a four-line stanza (quatrain) for a total of nineteen lines

– The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas

– The third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas

– These two refrain lines follow each other to become the penultimate (second-to-last) and final lines of the poem

~Don’t worry, I’ll break it down for you in a moment~

Content

– Traditional villanelles often featured a pastoral setting

– Modern villenelles are free from thematic restrictions

Rhyme

aba pattern, with rhymes repeated according to the refrains

Meter

– No requirement, though you’ll find some modern examples (like Roethke’s above) are written in iambic pentameter

Variation

Some modern interpretations of the form allow for some variation in the refrain. For examples of this, see Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”.

Requirement Breakdown

1. A1  (refrain)
2. b
3. A2 (refrain)

4. a
5. b
6. A1  (refrain)

7. a
8. b
9. A2  (refrain)

10. a
11. b
12. A1  (refrain)

13. a
14. b
15. A2  (refrain)

16. a
17. b
18. A1 (refrain)
19. A2 (refrain)

An Original Villanelle

Bird by Bird [a Villanelle]

I write to write and see my mind in words.
I fear not dullness nor avoid mistake.
I write to write and take it bird by bird.

Ideas they flow though often quite absurd;
These visions form and dream-filled pictures make.
I write to write and see my dreams in words.

But how, you ask, can one with eyes obscured
By sleep-drunk thoughts be made to spring awake?
I write to wake and take it bird by bird.

Although it’s true I’m less than self-assured,
And my neglected voice is sure to shake;
I write to heal and grow through shaking words.

And my unpracticed voice may well be heard,
But I fear not that I’ll be found a fake.
I write to live and see my life in words.
I write to write and take it bird by bird.

A Note on My Original Villanelle

My villanelle is inspired by Anne Lamott’s wonderful guide to writing and the creative life, Bird by Bird. I took a page from Roethke’s book and challenged myself to write my villanelle in iambic pentameter. I also took a page from Bishop’s book and added some variation to the refrain for added impact.

Links to Online Resources

Villanelle – Writer’s Digest
Villanelle – Wikipedia
The Villanelle, a French Form – Washington Post

Print Resources

The Making of a Poem – Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
A Poet’s Glossary – Edward Hirsch
Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

~

Come back every Friday to see the next form!

~ Creative works are owned by the author and subject to copyright laws ~

Write your own and share in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Week Twenty-Three: The Villanelle

  1. Pingback: Week Thirty-Six: Pantoum – Astra Poetica

  2. Pingback: Week Thirty-Two: Terzanelle – Astra Poetica

  3. Pingback: Bird by Bird [a Villanelle] – Adam of the Universe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s