Poetry Challenge from Primula: The Villanelle


Poetic Form: The Villanelle

A traditional form of poetry that is easier than most challenging forms, and may change in mood and depth along the way. At least three hundred years old, the villanelle derives its name from "villa" (Italian country house) where noblemen went to imagine that they were getting back to nature. It echoes native songs, that have frequent refrains and complex rhyming.

The first thing you need for a villanelle is a pair of rhyming lines, or a couplet, that together are the heart of your meaning. Here are the two key lines from The House on the Hill, by E. A. Robinson:

A They are all gone away
A There is nothing more to say.

Now put an unrhymed line between these two, to make a three-line stanza:

A1 They are all gone away,
B   The House is shut and still,
A2 There is nothing more to say.

The next stanza begins with a line that rhymes with the basic couplet, a line that rhymes with the middle line you added, and (this is the key to this form) the first line of the couplet repeated:

A   Through broken walls and gray
B   The winds blow bleak and shrill:
A1 They are all gone away.

The next stanza has a first line rhyming with "away" and "say," followed by a line rhyming with "still," and then the second line of the couplet repeated:

A   Nor is there one today
B   To speak them good or ill:
A2 There is nothing more to say.

You see how the two lines of the base couplet become more and more meaningful with each repetition. That is why the success of the form depends so much on the careful selection of the couplet.

The poem then goes on this way for a total of five three-line stanzas, alternating the two base lines, and ends with a sixth stanza that adds the second line of the stanza one more time:

A   Why is it then we stray
B   Around the shrunken sill?
A1 They are all gone away.

A   And our poor fancy-play
B   For them is wasted skill:
A2 There is nothing more to say.

A   There is ruin and decay
B   In the House on the Hill:
A1 They are all gone away,
A2 There is nothing more to say.

Notice how it deepens with each repetition.

That's SIX stanzas then -

In this form poets can choose longer or shorter lines. For instance, Robinson's poem has three beats to a line, while other's may have the more traditional five (ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM), or other consistent variations. 


An excellent and well-known example is Dylan Thomas's reflection on the death of his father, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

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.

And here is my own (amateur) first attempt:

Parting

A1 Not even death’s hand should cause us to part,
B   I said by your side like a brother I’d cleave...
A2 This anguish, it beats in the depths of my heart.

A   We were promised to finish this task from the start.
B   Into this darkness, our small lights to weave;
A1 Not even death’s hand should cause us to part.

A   This forsaken path, beyond bearing to chart -
B   My hope in your life by cruel fate bereaved;
A2 This anguish, it beats in the depths of my heart.

A   Your light overcomes the most hideous dark,
B   And somewhere inside me is strength to believe
A1 Not even death’s hand should cause us to part.

A   For you were brought low by a hell-conceived dart
B   Your bright spirit darkened, for your life I grieve;
A2 This anguish, it beats in the depths of my heart.

A   I will carry this weight, and return to this start,
B   Then never again from your side shall I leave.
A1 Not even death’s hand should cause us to part,
A2 This anguish, it beats in the depths of my heart.


With thanks to Conrad Geller, whose work was of great help in researching this form.