Villanelle Poems: Definition, Form & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Villanelle
  • 1:31 The Villanelle Structure
  • 5:49 Other Examples
  • 6:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

In this lesson, you will discover a specific fixed-form poem that comes from the French: the villanelle. You will learn the structure of this poem and analyze an example.

Definition of a Villanelle

A villanelle is a fixed-form poem consisting of five tercets and a quatrain and also follows a specific rhyme scheme using only two different sounds. A tercet is a stanza with only three lines, and a quatrain is a stanza with four lines. Thus, the villanelle has nineteen total lines. There is also a pattern of two refrains, which are repeated lines in a poem or verse. Therefore, in a villanelle, two different lines repeat throughout the poem. Specifically, the first line recurs as lines 6, 12, and 18, and the third line recurs as lines 9, 15, and 19.

In addition, the pattern becomes even more complex with a specific rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme uses letters of the alphabet to show which lines must end with words that rhyme. In a villanelle, the rhyme scheme is ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA. This means that the final word in the first and third lines in every tercet rhyme together, and the middle lines also rhyme with each other. In the quatrain, the first, third and fourth lines rhyme with the rest of the 'A' lines, and the second line rhymes with the rest of the middle lines, or the 'B.' In this way, only two different rhyming sounds are used throughout the entire poem. This intricate pattern is more easily seen in an example, so let's analyze a very famous villanelle for the rest of this lesson.

The Villanelle Structure

It's very difficult to remain within the constraints of the specific structure of the villanelle and also create a poem with meaning and intention. However, Dylan Thomas' poem 'Do not go gentle into that good night' is a perfect example of a villanelle. Let's look at each stanza.

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.

This is the first tercet, or three-lined stanza. The rhyme scheme is apparent: the first line ('night') rhymes with the third line ('light'). We will see how the second line ('day') will rhyme with the rest of the middle lines in each of the following stanzas. Also, we see the two refrains. The first and third lines in this stanza will be the ones repeated later on. Now let's look at the fourth, fifth and sixth lines.

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.

In this second tercet we see the rhyme scheme continue. The final word of the fourth and sixth lines, ('right' and 'night'), rhyme not only with each other, but also with the first and third lines we saw in the previous tercet. Also, we finally see a line that rhymes with the second line ('day'), which is the fifth line ('they'). Look at just the last words of the first six lines: 'night' (A), 'day' (B), 'light' (A), 'right '(A), 'they' (B), 'night' (A). This is how we get the rhyme scheme of 'ABA' for each tercet. In addition, we see the first refrain, which is the first line of the poem, repeated as the sixth line. Let's continue to the third stanza:

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.

In the third tercet, which is lines 7, 8 and 9, we see the ABA rhyme scheme continue ('bright' (A), 'bay' (B), 'light' (A)). We also see the third line repeated as the ninth line. Let's continue to the fourth tercet:

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.

The 10th, 11th, and 12th lines keep the pattern, as well. 'Flight,' 'way' and 'night' follow the rhyme scheme, and the 12th line is the repetition of the first line in the very first stanza. There is only one tercet left:

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.

The fourth tercet also keeps the pattern intact. 'Sight,' 'gay' and 'light' continue the ABA rhyme scheme. In addition, the 15th line repeats the third line from the first stanza. Now let's look at the final stanza: the quatrain.

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