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Roundel Poem: Definition, Structure & Examples

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

A roundel is a graceful form of traditional poetry used in the English language. This lesson will give some background on the poet who devised this particular form, describe the form itself, and offer some examples.

Algernon Charles Swinburne

The poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne
Swinburne

Swinburne (1837-1909) was a British writer and poet who devised the metered and rhyming form of the roundel, the equivalent in the English language of the French rondeau. He was born in London into a wealthy Northumbrian family and attended the prestigious Eton College, where he began writing poetry. He later attended Oxford, though he never completed a degree. At Oxford, he met writers and artists of the pre-Raphaelite school, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Swinburne is notorious for bragging about his decadent adventures and appetites in his younger years. He often wrote about controversial topics such as atheism, lesbianism, and even cannibalism. A series of poems dedicated to the ancient Greek poet Sappho from the Isle of Lesbos caused outrage when first published.

The ancient Greek poet, Sappho
Sappho

The First Roundel

Here is the first roundel Swinburne wrote, which describes how the form works.

The Roundel

A roundel is wrought as a ring or a starbright sphere,

With craft of delight and with cunning of sound unsought,

That the heart of the hearer may smile if to pleasure his ear

A roundel is wrought.

Its jewel of music is carven of all or of aught—

Love, laughter, or mourning—remembrance of rapture or fear—

That fancy may fashion to hang in the ear of thought.

As a bird's quick song runs round, and the hearts in us hear

Pause answer to pause, and again the same strain caught,

So moves the device whence, round as a pearl or tear,

A roundel is wrought.

Ideas captured in starbright spheres
Round Spheres

Well, it explains how the poet viewed his newly created form, but we need more specific details to try to understand what's going on in terms of meter, lines, and rhyme.

What is a Roundel?

So, let's answer this question in order to perhaps attempt to write a roundel poem.

A roundel should have three stanzas, and each stanza must consist of three lines. The rhyme scheme alternates line to line. The opening words of the poem are then repeated as a refrain after the first and third stanzas.

It might help to remember that Swinburne was a writer of Romantic poetry, focusing on imaginative and intuitive subjects like time, the ocean, and death. The poet wanted to create a poetic form that circled around a subject and echoed the main point in a refrain.

In this poem, the refrain is A roundel is wrought. The word wrought rhymes with the end words of the middle two lines in the stanzas with a refrain, and the first and third lines of the central stanza. Can you begin to see the roundness of the form?

Unfortunately, sometimes rhyming forms with very specific rules lead poets into the trap of choosing words that are not exactly fitting in order to meet the requirements of the form. Some of Swinburne's contemporaries, as well as later critics, suggested that he may have occasionally fallen back on the sound of the poem at the expense of the meaning. What do you think?

Brittain's Roundel

Here is a later roundel by British poet Vera Mary Brittain, subtitled ''Died of Wounds''. Look for the rhyme scheme of:

ABAR/BAB/ABAR

Because you died, I shall not rest again,

But wander ever through the lone world wide,

Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain

Because you died.

I shall spend brief and idle hours beside

The many lesser loves that still remain,

But find in none my triumph and my pride;

And Disillusion's slow corroding stain

Will creep upon each quest but newly tried,

For every striving now shall nothing gain

Because you died.

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