tagHow ToHow to Write a Villanelle

How to Write a Villanelle


After several decades of the dominance of unrhymed, free forms in modern poetry, there has been a renaissance of sorts as form poetry is appearing more and more in modern publications like Poetry, Ploughshares, The Missouri Review and many other print magazines, as well as in numerous online journals. Of the many different forms that are appearing lately, the Villanelle is a relatively easy form to learn and write.

The Villanelle is a 19 line poem with its earliest origins in the Italian Villanelle, a vocal music of the sixteenth century, derived from similar forms dating back to the fifteenth century. This music tended to lean more to the courtly madrigal than the more popular songs of that era. (1) Later in the sixteenth century the form appeared in France and then later the form became popular in England in the late nineteenth century, referred to as the Victorian Villanelle.

The modern form of the Villanelle has not really changed a lot from the Victorian Villanelle. The nineteen lines of any single length are divided into five triplets and one quatrain, or in other words, five three-lined stanzas closing with one four-lined stanza. Built on two refrains, or repeated lines, the form uses only two rhymes throughout the entire poem.

The refrains are drawn from the first and third lines of the initial stanza, with the first line also becoming the sixth, twelfth and eighteenth line and the third line repeating as the ninth, fifteenth and nineteenth lines. A diagram of the rhyme scheme and refrains would appear as:

Lines rhyme, refrain
1       A1
2       b
3       A2

4       a
5       b
6       A1

7       a
8       b
9       A2

10       a
11       b
12       A1

13       a
14       b
15       A2

16       a
17       b
18       A1
19       A2

With all the lines being the same length, a similar meter or rhythm helps the poem flow more smoothly. Of course, with this rhythm, keeping the rhyme from being too trite or mechanical is important. Considering you are working with only two rhymes for the entire nineteen lines this can present a challenge.

Another thing to consider is, as with any poem featuring repetition, the repeated lines take on added weight for the simple fact they are repeated. If you consider that over 40% of the Villanelle is built from the refrain, you can see how important these lines become. Often poets will even add some variation to the refrain as Elizabeth Bishop does in her famous poem "One Art"

Stanza one:

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

Stanza three:

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

As you can see the refrain of line three is modified here as well as the rest of the times the refrain is used. The refrain of line one only changes in the last stanza. While this is often done to introduce some variation in the repetition, others will use the refrains as included in the first stanza. Most agree the Villanelle can be handled either way.

Another form similar to the Villanelle is the Terzanelle which is a French and Italian adaptation mixing the Terza Rima with the Villanelle form. This nineteen line poem also features the five triplets and one quatrain, however the stanzas are laced with the middle line of one stanza repeating (repeton) as the end line of the following stanza, except in the final stanza which can take one of two forms.

Perhaps a simpler way of looking at the poem would be in the rhyming and refrain diagram:

Line rhyme, refrain or repeton
1       A1 refrain
2       B repeton
3       A2 refrain

4       b
5       C repeton
6       B repeton

7       c
8       D repeton
9       C repeton

10       d
11       E repeton
12       D repeton

13       e
14       F repeton
15       E repeton

16       f
17       A1 refrain or   F repeton
18       F repeton or   A1 refrain
19       A2 refrain

Again, the uppercase letters are either repeated as refrains or repetons while the lowercase letter will simply rhyme with other like letters (ie. c rhymes with C, etc.)

Certainly the Terzanelle is a complex form, one I would not recommend anyone try without working on at least a few Villanelles, and perhaps a few other forms. Either way, once you get comfortable working with the forms they will not seem so daunting.



1. McFarland, Ronald E. The Villanelle, The Evolution of a Poetic Form, The University of Idaho Press, Moscow Idaho, 1987.

2. Turco, Lewis The New Book of Forms, A Handbook of Poetics University Press of New England 1986.

3. Finch, Annie ed. & Varnes, Katherine ed. An Exaltation of Forms, Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2002.

4. Strand, Mark & Boland, Eavan The Making of a Poem, A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms W.W. Norton & Company, New York 2000.


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