Let’s Talk About The Amazing Villanelle?

Killing Eve

If you are a Killing Eve fan you are probably already pretty besotted with Villanelle, the Jodie Comer character. But perhaps you, like 2019 me, did not realise that a villanelle is also a TYPE OF POEM?

Feeling utterly SHOCKED that you didn’t know this? * titter * Me neither until I started studying writing and was presented with some lessons on this particular poetic form.

“Why did nobody tell me about villanelles?” I cried silently. To nobody. Not ever.

Consequently I’ve tried to learn a bit more about poetry over the last few months.

Lines of words I used to shake my head at and back away from, I now realise, (sometimes) slot into some pretty interesting and historic patterns. Patterns that can be traced back centuries, their roots attributed to folk in ruffs and pantaloons and the like.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to start poetry lessons here (I am still learning and am a total novice), but I thought you might like to read more about the villanelle today.

Maybe you even want to write your own villanelle? I promise it will stop you thinking about all the hard things that are going on.

So. One of the most beloved Villanelles is Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas.

If you look at this poem, you’ll see a bunch of interesting things, even before you have a deep dive into the words and what they might mean.

1/ Firstly it’s made up of bunches of lines.

There are FIVE groups of three lines. These groups are called stanzas (forgive me if you know all this!) and a stanza of three lines is called a tercet.

There’s also a group (or stanza) of four lines at the end. This is called a quatrain.

A stanza of three lines = a tercet.
A stanza of four lines = a quatrain.

2/ The second thing about Mr Thomas’ villanelle is that the lines end in a series of rhymes.

Night, light, right, bright.
Or day, way, they, bay etc.

Yup. The whole poem has lines that end only in words that rhyme with NIGHT or words that rhyme with DAY.

3/ The third thing is that there are some repeated lines in there, see?

This is where it gets a bit brain hurty, but if you look at Dylan’s poem you can simply copy where the lines are repeated.

Officially these repeating lines go like this …

“The first line of the poem repeats as the last line of the second and fourth stanza, and the second-to-last line of the last stanza. The third line of the poem (last line of the first stanza) repeats as the last line of the third, fifth, and last stanza. This means that the last line of every stanza (and the last two lines of the last stanza) is already written once you’ve completed the first stanza.” – source.

But that seems a bit confusing, right? Luckily it’s not as tricky as it sounds. In fact, in my mind, this sort of poem is a bit like crochet or knitting or cooking … because there’s a pattern that lurks behind a lovely thing. And once you know that pattern, you can from a lovely thing … and perhaps create even more good things.

The rhymes in the villanelle

So I’ve had a crack at a speedily cobbled-together villanelle to show you again how the lines repeat and how the rhymes repeat.

It’s not a very good poem. In fact it’s pretty crap. But I wanted to give you another example of how it’s structured so you can use your whole brain to write one and distract yourself from the rolling coverage for a wee while …

A crappy villanelle 

The bending trees call me outdoors
When I should really stay tucked in
These cosy days are for good cause

There’s chaos as I try to pause
Galahs squawk by beckoning
The bending trees call me outdoors

Dog walkers pass in twos and fours
Three feet lengths in between
These cosy days are for good cause

The count, the curve, the border laws
The queues, the road rage, wearing thin
The bending trees call me outdoors

The news rotating countless bores
Hours stretch, screens scrolled, wash put on spin.
These cosy days are for good cause

Each state tallies their own grim scores
The hardest days we’ve ever seen
The bending trees call me outdoors
These cosy days are for good cause

So you can see the rhyme pattern above.

One rhyme is in red: outdoors, pause, cause, laws etc.
The other rhyme is in blue: in, beckoning, between, thin

Note that rhymes don’t have to be super exact. They can be NEARLY there and be considered great. In fact sometimes exact rhymes are thought to be a bit trite in poetry, apparently. So you can slide some nearly rhyming words in like I did with between and thin and poetry fanciers will think you have mad skills.

When you write your villanelle, you should copy the end-line placement of the alternating rhymes as above.

You will likely also choose different rhymes to me. And your lines can be longer or shorter than mine.

Mr Thomas’ poem has ten syllables per line and is an example of poetry using sound patterning called iambic pentameter (also beloved by Shakespeare, I have learned.) You can learn about that another time if it’s new to you. I just wanted to point it out.

So. To clarify. Get writing. Make your poem adhere to the villanelle form by matching the rhyme pattern (aka rhyme scheme) and repeating lines match mine (or Mr Thomas’ or one of the many other excellent villanelles penned by actual poets.)*

The repeats (or refrains) in the villanelle

Here’s my crap poem again. Let’s look at where the same line repeats in a villanelle …

The bending trees call me outdoors
When I should really stay tucked in
These cosy days are for good cause

There’s chaos as I try to pause
Galahs squawk by beckoning
The bending trees call me outdoors

Dog walkers pass in twos and fours
Three feet lengths in between
These cosy days are for good cause

The count, the curve, the border laws
The queues, the road rage, wearing thin
The bending trees call me outdoors

The news rotating countless bores
Hours stretch, screens scrolled, wash put on spin.
These cosy days are for good cause

Each state tallies their own grim scores
The hardest days we’ve ever seen
The bending trees call me outdoors
These cosy days are for good cause

You can see I’ve coloured the TWO repeating lines in green and orange. And you can see where they fit in as per official villanelle structure.

The last line of each 3 line stanza (aka tercet) feature one of these repeating lines.
And the last two lines of the 4 line stanza (aka quatrain) features BOTH of our repeating lines.

So that’s how you do it!

I think the idea is that the two lines which repeat have a bit of strength to them. They do in Thomas’ poem, but not so much in my hurried attempt. The specialness of those two repeating lines runs thought the poem to help make some intertwined magic.

“I learn by going where I have to go”

Other villanelles I like …

  1. The Waking by Theodore Roethke – read it here. I LOVE THAT POEM!
  2. One Art by Elizabeth Bishop – read it here. Genius.
  3. Runaway by Julie Clarke – read it here. Lovely.

It’s your turn now

Why don’t you write a villanelle and share it below? GO ON!

It’s okay if you don’t get it quite right. Just have a go!

There are lots of rhyming dictionaries online. You could start by creating those two super-powered repeating lines and then pencil in the structure of the villanelle (which rhymes and repeating lines go where) and THEN fill the lines in with your words.

eg:

Blah blah blah this is a new line (ending in a rhyme a – eg sea)
Blah blah blah this is a new line (ending in a rhyme b – eg took)
Repeating line 1 (which ends in a rhyme a – eg bee)

Blah blah blah this is a new line (ending in a rhyme a – eg free)
Blah blah blah this is a new line (ending in a rhyme b – eg book)
Repeating line 2 (which ends in a rhyme a – eg tree)

etc etc

Have a play around. 🙂

A huge thank you to my teachers at Curtin University for teaching me about this poetic form.

x pip

PS: I’ll be back here tomorrow with more good things in case you’re feeling a bit shit.

* Or just go nuts and write any kind of poem and share it!

6 Comments

  1. Hi
    Could you write a connected series of Villanelle?
    Thanks
    Brenda

    1. I am sure that you could do that, YES!!

  2. A Coronavirus Villanelle for Pip

    A virus with a protein crown
    Wash your hands with alcohol gel
    I’d really like to go to town

    Video call. Don’t come around.
    Temperature check. Do I feel well?
    A virus with a protein crown

    “So why not?” he asks with a frown
    Play at home with my toddling girl
    I’d really like to go to town

    Will there be a mask? A gown?
    As from an airway comes expelled
    A virus with a protein crown

    Noisy feed. Scrolling up and down.
    Pay attention. She almost fell
    I’d really like to go to town

    Learning rhythms of the house bound
    Doing enough? Oh who can tell?
    I’d really like to go to town
    A virus with a protein crown

    1. THIS. IS. AMAZING!!! 20 out of 10! Brilliant. Thank you for taking the time to write and share your poem. I LOVE IT.

  3. So, so many little nuggets of wonder and light in your post. These are hard times, for sure, but certainly not the first (or last), but like the head custodian shows us, through Roethke, sometimes you just have to get up and go and figure it out on the way. Poetry, like all art, never fails. Take care, be well, thanks for sharing.

  4. Love this post, thanks for this! Reminds me of my university days. 🙂

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