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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.

A villanelle is a verse form that entered English-language poetry in the 19th century from the imitation of French models.[1] The word derives via the Italian villanella from the Latin villanus (rustic).[2]


Villanelle (villanelle) n. Vil`la*nelle" [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.[3]
[* "verse"=line]


A villanelle is 19 lines long, consisting of 5 tercets and a concluding quatrain.[4] The villanelle has no established meter, although most 19th-century villanelles used trimeter or tetrameter and most 20th-century villanelles have used pentameter.

The essence of the modern form is its distinctive pattern of rhyme and repetition. A villanelle has only two rhyme sounds. The 1st and 3rd lines of the 1st stanza are rhyming refrains that alternate as the 3rd line in each successive stanza and form a couplet at the close.

The rhyme-and-refrain pattern of the villanelle can be schematized as A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 where letters ("a" and "b") indicate the two rhyme sounds, upper case ("A"), indicates a repeated line or refrain and superscript numerals (1 and 2) indicate Refrain 1 and Refrain 2.

Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 2 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)
Line 4 (a)
Line 5 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 7 (a)
Line 8 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)
Line 10 (a)
Line 11 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 13 (a)
Line 14 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)
Line 16 (a)
Line 17 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Because of its non-linear structure, the villanelle resists narrative development. Villanelles do not tell a story or establish a conversational tone.[5]

In music, the villanelle is a dance form, accompanied by sung lyrics or an instrumental piece based on this dance form.[2]


Many published works mistakenly claim that the modern verse form of the villanelle originated with the medieval troubadours, but in fact medieval and Renaissance villanelles were simple ballad-like songs with no fixed form or length.[1] Such songs were associated with the country, and were thought to be sung by farmers and shepherds, in contrast to the more complex madrigals associated with sophisticated city and court life. The French word villanelle comes from the Italian word villanella, which derives from the Latin villa (house) and villano (farmhand); to any poet before the mid-19th century, the word villanelle or villanella would have simply meant country song, with no particular form implied.

The modern 19-line dual-refrain form of the villanelle derives from 19th-century admiration of the only Renaissance poem in that form: a poem about a turtledove titled "Villanelle" by Jean Passerat (1534-1602).[6] The chief French popularizer of the villanelle form was the 19th-century author Théodore de Banville; Banville was led by Wilhelm Ténint to think that Passerat's villanelle was the antique form.[7]

Although the villanelle is usually labeled "a French form" (due to Passerat and Banville), by far the majority of villanelles are in English. Edmund Gosse, influenced by Banville, was the first English writer to praise the villanelle and bring it into fashion with his 1877 essay "A Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse". Gosse, Austin Dobson, Oscar Wilde, and Edwin Arlington Robinson were among the first English practitioners.

Most modernists disdained the villanelle, which became associated with the overwrought formal aestheticism of the 1890s; i.e. the decadent movement in England. In Canada, "Seranus " (Susan Frances Harrison), no doubt sharing the belief that it was a verse form of rural France, used it to craft a remarkable series of poems on rural French Canada; yet she was an isolated figure, influencing no other poets of her time. James Joyce included a villanelle ostensibly written by his adolescent fictional alter-ego Stephen Dedalus in his 1914 novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, possibly to show the immaturity of Stephen's literary abilities.

William Empson revived the villanelle more seriously in the 1930's, and his contemporaries and friends W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas also tried the form. Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night" is perhaps the most renowned villanelle of all. Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath wrote villanelles in the 1950's and 1960's, and Elizabeth Bishop composed a particularly famous and influential villanelle, "One Art", in 1976. The villanelle reached an unprecedented level of popularity in the 1980's and 1990's with the rise of the New Formalism. Since then, many contemporary poets have written villanelles, and they have often varied the form in innovative ways.


See also Edit


  1. 1.0 1.1 Kane, Julie. "The Myth of the Fixed-Form Villanelle". Modern Language Quarterly 64.4 (2003): 427-43.
  2. 2.0 2.1 w:fr:Villanelle
  3. "Villanelle," Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary 1913,, Web, July 9, 2011.
  4. Preminger, Alex (1993). The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691032718. 
  5. Strand, Mark. The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Form. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001, p. 8.
  6. French, Amanda. "The First Villanelle: A New Translation of Jean Passerat's 'J'ay perdu ma tourterelle' (1574)". Meridian 12 (2003): 30-37.
  7. French, Amanda. "Refrain, Again: The Return of the Villanelle". Dissertation, University of Virginia, 2004.

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