Refrain in Poetry: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Refrain
  • 1:00 Example of Refrain
  • 2:56 Purpose of Refrains
  • 3:50 Another Example
  • 5:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Learn all about the poetic refrain--what it is, its purpose, and how to write a good one. This lesson will both define and teach the refrain using popular examples and a quiz to test your knowledge.

What is a Refrain?

Ever heard a song on the radio and been unable to get it out of your head? It likely got stuck there because of the chorus. In poetry, the chorus is called a refrain.

Coming from an old French word refraindre, meaning to repeat, a poetic refrain is a word, group of words, line, or group of lines repeated at specific moments in the poem. In songs, the point of the chorus is to be easily remembered and catchy. In poetry, the refrain's purpose has a little more to it.

The refrain typically appears at the end of the stanza or as its own stanza in between others, though this is not always the case. A refrain can include rhymes, but it is not necessary. It can also be repeated exactly, or the phrasing can vary slightly. Some poetic forms require a refrain, like a villanelle or a sestina.

Example of a Refrain

The following is a popular example of a poem that uses refrains.

One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop photograph

The refrains in this poem are the phrases that are repeated. The first refrain, 'The art of losing isn't hard to master,' is repeated in the first, second, fourth, and sixth stanzas. Note that it varies slightly in the sixth stanza, 'the art of losing's not too hard to master,' but it still counts as the refrain.

The second refrain in Bishop's poem is 'disaster,' which appears in the first, third, fifth, and sixth stanzas. Note that it is only one word, and the phrasing around it varies. However, it is still considered a refrain in this instance.

Purpose of Refrains

The form of this particular poem calls for two refrains to be repeated in specific places throughout the poem. But what is the purpose of the refrain?

Let's take the first refrain as an example. 'The art of losing isn't hard to master' opens the poem, and, therefore, begins the poem's idea. The poem will be about the art of losing, and how easily the art is learned. It is also one of the lines that will be most easily remembered in the poem. However, each time this refrain is written, it takes on more meaning. It builds like a crescendo until it changes slightly in the last stanza -- 'the art of losing's not too hard to master'. The slight variation, adding the 'too,' makes the refrain stand out because you know something has changed, both in wording and in meaning.

Another Example

Here's another poem that uses refrains. See if you can spot them.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

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.

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