The word 'villanelle' (pronounced vil-uh-nell) is derived from the Italian word villanella, meaning a rustic or rural song. Like most songs, the villanelle is a type of poem that follows a strict structural form, and the rules it is bound to make the villanelle a good example of a fixed verse form. 

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Table of contents

    Villanelle Structure

    Villanelle poems follow strict, structural rules. However, some find this more freeing than limiting; when the poet's focus is on the technical details, the content of the poem can flow in a more unconscious, uninhibited way.1 The villanelle also makes use of the power of repetition to create a melodic poem that is capable of crafting powerful imagery with words.

    Let's take a detailed look at the structure of villanelles:


    A villanelle has 19 lines which are separated into five tercets (stanzas with three lines), with a quatrain (four lines) as the sixth stanza. The length or meter of the individual lines is not restricted, giving writers some creative freedom in this area.

    Rhyme scheme

    Each tercet in the villanelle has two repeating rhymes, thus following an ABA rhyme scheme. The final stanza is slightly different, as it follows an ABAA rhyme scheme.


    Villanelles have two refrains (lines that are repeated in a poem). Line 1 is repeated in lines 6, 12, and 18, while line 3 is repeated in lines 9, 15, and 19.

    The repetition of the lines and the rhyme lend a hint of nostalgia to the tone, as the speaker seemingly revisits certain ideas or expressions by repeating them multiple times.

    These rules may seem confusing at first glance, but pay attention to the upcoming examples, and things will become much clearer.

    Poets sometimes make minor changes to the strict form of the villanelle by allowing variations in the refrains.

    Villanelle Meaning

    The villanelle poem originated as a simple, ballad-like song, which was quite the opposite of the structured poetic form it takes today. Before the 17th century, poets wrote villanelles with no intended rhyme schemes or refrains; the poems were written with the character of Italian and Spanish dance songs that had simple and rustic themes.

    The origin of the modern form of villanelle that we know today is often disputed among scholars. However, most agree that it originated in 1606 when the French poet Jean Passerat published a poem titled 'Villanelle (I lost my turtledove).'

    Villanelle, turtle dove in nature, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A turtledove.

    The villanelle wasn't especially popular until French romantic poets discovered Passerat's poem and mimicked the style in their poetry during the 1800s. The form then became popular in Britain after the English poets Edmund Gosse and Austin Dobson published poetry using the modern villanelle form.

    Despite originating in French, most villanelles have been written in the English language.

    Many poets who adhered to the modernist artistic movement looked down upon the villanelle, considering its strict aesthetic form to be a limitation on creativity. This sentiment didn't stop the advancement of the form in British poetry. In 1951, Dylan Thomas published one of the most renowned villanelles of the time, called 'Do not go gentle into that good night'. The villanelle achieved a new level of popularity with the rise of the New Formalism movement in American poetry that took place in the late 20th century.

    New Formalism was a movement in American poetry that promoted the use of narrative poetry and metrical, rhymed verse. The thinking behind the movement was that poetry had to compete with novels using the aforementioned devices.

    Villanelle Examples

    'Do not go gentle into that good night' (1951) 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.Though wise men at their end know dark is right,Because their words had forked no lightning theyDo not go gentle into that good night.Good men, the last wave by, crying how brightTheir 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 sightBlind 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.

    The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, wrote this poem in 1951 in honour of his ageing father. In it, he encourages the elderly to stand up and fight against their inevitable death.

    Thomas chose to follow the original form of the villanelle by repeating the same lines in the poem. The first refrain is '[r]age, rage against the dying of the light', a powerful line that commands people to fight in the face of death. The second refrain he uses is '[d]o not go gentle into that good night' and, although it possesses a similar meaning to the first refrain, it is delivered in a softer and more gracious style. Staying true to the poetic form, Thomas concludes the final quatrain with the same two refrains.

    Villanelle, Dylan Thomas with Luigi Berti standing in a doorway, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Dylan Thomas (left) with Italian literary critic Luigi Berti.

    'Villanelle' (1877) by Edmund Gosse

    WOULDST thou not be content to die

    When low-hung fruit is hardly clinging,

    And golden Autumn passes by?

    Beneath this delicate rose-gray sky,

    While sunset bells are faintly ringing,

    Wouldst thou not be content to die?

    For wintry webs of mist on high

    Out of the muffled earth are springing,

    And golden Autumn passes by.

    O now when pleasures fade and fly,

    And Hope her southward flight is winging,

    Wouldst thou not be content to die?

    Lest Winter come, with wailing cry

    His cruel icy bondage bringing,

    When golden Autumn hath passed by.

    And thou, with many a tear and sigh,

    While life her wasted hands is wringing,

    Shalt pray in vain for leave to die

    When golden Autumn hath passed by.

    Gosse's 1877 poem was among the first villanelles that were written in English, making it a critical text in the spreading and development of the form.

    The poem includes some small variations on the standard villanelle form. The first refrain '[w]ouldst thou not be content to die' isn't used in the final quatrain as would be expected from a traditional villanelle. Furthermore, the second refrain '[a]nd golden Autumn passes by?' is slightly altered throughout the poem; it's posed as a question in some stanzas, while in others, the tense is changed from present to past tense. However, despite these minor changes, the poem remains a villanelle due to the overall structure and aesthetic of the poem.

    Pro tip: you may have noticed that some of the quotes included in this article begin with a letter in square brackets, e.g., '[w]ouldst thou not be content to die'. The original quote from the poem begins with a capital letter, 'W', and although this is grammatically correct in the poem itself, it doesn't make sense when we include the quote in the middle of another sentence. Because of this, the capital letter is changed to a lowercase letter and placed in square brackets to make clear this is not part of the original quote. Next time you are writing an essay, you can use this tip to keep your work grammatically correct while also staying true to the text you are discussing.

    'The Waking' (1953) by Theodore Roethke

    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go.We think by feeling. What is there to know? I hear my being dance from ear to ear. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.Of those so close beside me, which are you? God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there, And learn by going where I have to go.Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how? The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair; I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.Great Nature has another thing to do To you and me; so take the lively air, And, lovely, learn by going where to go.This shaking keeps me steady. I should know. What falls away is always. And is near. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go.

    'The Waking' is an enigmatic villanelle that explores ways in which life can be appreciated. Roethke uses powerful references to nature as representations of life and death.

    Roethke maintains close adherence to the rules of the villanelle, however, he does make small adjustments in the second repeating line, 'I learn by going where I have to go'. Instead of repeating the line exactly, Roethke adjusts the initial phrase to '[a]nd, lovely, learn by going where to go.'

    The villanelle makes use of two profound repeating lines that emphasise the main concept of the poem: 'I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow' and 'I learn by going where I have to go.' 'I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow' introduces the reader to the paradox (contradiction) of 'waking to sleep'. You could interpret this paradox to mean that it takes a lifetime for a person to fully awaken. 'I learn by going where I have to go' indicates that it is through life experience that we learn, and learning can only be achieved by moving forward.

    Why do writers use villanelles?

    Villanelles offer poets a unique form to express their ideas, and there are various other reasons why poets may be attracted to write in this form.

    Villanelles are unconventional

    The subject matter that a villanelle focuses on is often thematically dense and serious. The repetitive nature of the poem makes it stands out to a reader, as it has a very melodic recitation.

    Villanelles offer a bold challenge

    Many established poets have commented on how the hefty constraints of a villanelle make them a very difficult form to master. However, if the villanelle is executed well, the reader can focus on the poem and almost forget about the underlying form.

    Villanelles help poets to write more freely

    Although many poets agree on the difficulty of executing the form of the villanelle, some poets find the strict form to be an aid to their writing. T. S. Eliot made the point that 'to use very strict form is a help, because you concentrate on the technical difficulties of mastering the form, and allow the content of the poem a more unconscious and freer release'.¹

    Villanelle - Key takeaways

    • A villanelle is a poem with a strict structural form, made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain.
    • A villanelle is a good example of a fixed verse form.
    • The structural rules of a villanelle determine the length, rhyme scheme, and refrains in the poem.
    • Most scholars agree that the modern form of the villanelle originated in 1606 when the French poet Jean Passerat published 'Villanelle'.
    • The majority of villanelles have been written in the English language.

    1 Anne Ridler. 'Villanelle for the Middle of the Way'. The Poetry Archive, 1997.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Villanelle

    What is a villanelle?

    The villanelle is a highly technical form of poetry built upon five tercets (three lines) and a quatrain (a stanza of four lines) with refrains that focus on repetition.

    What is the rhyme scheme of a villanelle?

    Villanelles use a specific rhyme scheme of ABA for their tercets and ABAA for the quatrain.

    What does villanelle mean in poetry?

    The villanelle is a specific poetic form that uses repeated lines and a strict rhyming pattern, they have a lyrical quality to them that creates a song-like poem.

    What is a villanelle’s structure?

    A villanelle consists of five stanzas of three lines (tercets) followed by a single stanza of four lines (a quatrain). It is structured by two repeating rhymes and two refrains.

    What poems are examples of villanelle?

    Good examples of villanelles are 'Do not go gentle into that good night' (1951) by Dylan Thomas, 'The Waking' (1953) by Theodore Roethke and 'Villanelle' (1877) by Edmund Gosse.

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