What is a Villanelle?
You'd think this question could be answered easily enough. Indeed, brief advice on the form abounds and can be summarised in a line or so: 'five three-line stanzas rhyming ABA, ABA, ABA, ABA, ABA, and a final stanza rhyming ABAA. The first and third lines in the first stanza alternately form the final line of stanzas two to five and reappear as a couplet in the last'.
This is fine as far as it goes. I hope that some readers will have tried out such recipes for themselves, and if they've written at least one Villanelle in response to this kind of sketchy guidance I applaud them. Many will prefer a more in-depth look at the form, and this is the intention of this article. The Villanelle is ideal for such treatment, both because it can tricky but worthwhile in its own right, and because mastering it can teach wider lessons about formal poetry.
It's a French form, and has been in literary use since the fifteenth or sixteenth century, although it didn't become popular in the English language until the nineteenth century. Some say that it was first used by François Villon (1431-c1474) and point to one of the alternative spellings - Villonelle. This is an ingenious theory, and François Villon was certainly an interesting man. He graduated from the University of Paris, and was poised for a career in the Church or in the legal profession. However fate - or more likely Villon's wild temperament - took a hand. In 1455 he killed a priest in a quarrel, and after wandering through France for four years was imprisoned in Meung-sur-Loire and sentenced to death. He was reprieved by Louis XI but was imprisoned after a street brawl and condemned again in 1463. At the last moment his sentence was commuted to banishment from Paris for ten years. He duly left the city, but his end is shrouded in mystery.
In between his spells in prison he wrote poetry. Much of this has survived and indeed was translated into English in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His translators included Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Algernon Swinburne, and Ezra Pound. Villon is regarded as one of the best of the French lyric poets and his work was very popular in the nineteenth century, none more so than the Ballade of the Men who were to be Hanged, said to have been composed in 1462 while the poet was under sentence of death.
Many prefer the less romantic belief that the Villanelle became a literary form under Jean Passerat (1534-1602), often called 'the father of the Villanelle'. In this version, the form was derived originally from Italian country songs combining dance and music, as witness the genesis of the word: villa was a country house and ella represented the girl whom the nobleman went there to dally with - no doubt whilst pretending that he was following rustic pursuits. Passerat certainly penned the oldest surviving example of the villanelle, beginning J'ay perdu ma tourterelle ('I have lost my turtledove') and the form became fixed on this model during his lifetime.
Look more closely at the Theocritus example I have given. Forget the words for a moment. The classical references and the use of archaic expressions firmly place it in the nineteenth century. You will see that lines one and three are all-important. As well as rhyming with each other, these are alternately used as the last line refrain (repeated line) of all the subsequent tercets (stanzas of three lines). They then form a couplet in the last two lines of the final quatrain (a stanza of four lines).
When you write a Villanelle it will usually make sense therefore to start with these two lines, and if you have them in mind both as a memorable final couplet and as something that you can lead into naturally and tellingly as the last lines of the rest of the tercets. The poem will stand or fall on the strength of these two lines, and the way they relate to the rest of the poem - although this must have sufficient 'meat' to be interesting in its own right.
There are no set line lengths or metres in the Villanelle, although seven to eleven syllables was popular in France (most lines in Passerat's poem are of seven syllables) and the iambic pentameter (lines of five stressed and five unstressed syllables) is often used in English. The rhyme scheme is usually adhered to firmly - Wilde's poem is unusual in its one line of departure [*see below] - but the modern Villanelle often takes liberties with the refrains. These can take the form of alterations in punctuation, or imaginative use of the caesura (a pause or break in the poem) or enjambment (running over of sense and grammatical structure from one line to the next). In some cases there is even the alteration or omission of a word or two. There is no doubt that, used well, these devices can add to a poem and strengthen it by softening the repetitions, but my advice is to adhere strictly to the form whilst you are finding your way.
The 'Golden Age' of the Villanelle in the United Kingdom was unquestionably the latter years of the nineteenth century. It was used then by numerous minor poets for light vers de société - Thomas Hardy's The Caged Thrush Freed and Home Again is a fairly typical example. In the twentieth century it was brought into more serious use by poets such as W.H. Auden, William Empson and Derek Mahon. Few would argue, though, that the best known (and one of the best) Villanelles is Dylan Thomas's Do not go gentle into that good night. This deservedly much-anthologised poem is not typical of a poet better known for his adventures with language than adherence to form, and if you are only vaguely aware of it I would recommend that you have a closer look.
Probably some of you will be thinking something like 'yes, this is all very well, but modern poetry is all in free verse'. This has always been a very doubtful thing to say, and is getting less true all the time. Formal poetry is making something of a comeback. Witness the final rhymed couplets that you see in many of today's poems. It is hard not to think of would-be swimmers parading around a pool, and stopping now and again to dip their toes in the water. My crystal ball tells me that soon many more of them will be taking a proper plunge.
Whether or not you think my crystal ball is badly in need of buffing up, let me leave you with a final word of warning. I hope that some of you will write Villanelles and other formal poems, or write more of them if your acquaintance up until now has only been a nodding one. But, be careful. Particularly among formal poems, the Villanelle can be habit-forming. It can even make you obsessive. Without caution, you can find yourselves scouring rhyming dictionaries in the small hours with an ice-pack on your head. And the Villanelle only uses two rhymes.
Worse, you could find yourself using forced rhyme, one of the worst sins for poets in my book. Don't become a formal poetry freak - what you have to say can be more important than the demands of any rhyme scheme. Be prepared to tear up your draft and start again in another form - or in free verse or a form of your own devising if that would suit the ideas better. But be prepared to take that plunge sometimes, too.
*Dr. C.W. Schoneveld, translator of Wilde’s poems into Dutch, has correctly pointed out to me that I am in error in this statement. Stanza three of Wilde's poem is perfectly regular. My error arose because I neglected to notice that in the word Hecate the final e is pronounced as the e in the English 'to be'.