Writers Corner ~ How to write a Villanelle

by Christi Moon~

I was delighted when I was asked to write an article on the ‘villanelle’ for The River Journal as it is my favorite of the forms; I think it’s hard to beat the beauty of this timeless classic. It’s my hope that you might be inspired to read some of the classics in print, as well as– the increasingly popular, modern villanelles circulating today. Maybe…you’ll write one of your own.

The essence of the fixed modern form is its distinctive pattern of rhyme and repetition. The rhyme-and-refrain pattern of the villanelle can be clearly defined as—

A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.

I find it remarkable that the villanelle has no established meter, although most 19th-century villanelles were written in trimeter or tetrameter and many 20th-century villanelles are written in pentameter. Research suggests that the villanelle reached an unprecedented level of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of the New Formalism. Since then, many contemporary poets have written villanelles, and they have often varied the form in creative and innovative ways.

Poets continue to pen villanelles for a variety of subjects, some of the common elements that contribute to the strength and beauty of this form is the composition of a strong opening tercet, with the first and third lines providing a two-barreled refrain. Masterfully crafted villanelles also gradually build in tone and intensity from one stanza to the next. The ending quatrains are often very powerful with the marriage of the refrain lines in the final two lines of the poem.

Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” is perhaps the most renowned villanelle of all, and is posted below. Enjoy—C.

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.

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6 thoughts on “Writers Corner ~ How to write a Villanelle

    • yes Gardenlilie– L1 and L3 in the first stanza are the refrain lines that repeat throughout the poem (as outlined above) and then come together as L3 and L4 in the last stanza.

  1. Christi,I struggle with writing these as I am a perfectionist, trying to make sure it is at least consistently iambic. A friend of mine finds them so easy to write, though I’ve noted that though his metric feet are consistent throughout, the metric stress may jump from iambic to trochaic. Is that acceptable in a Villanelle? Also, with NO established meter, does that mean that the correct format and rhyme is more important than the meter itself?

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