Do Villanelles Rhyme?

by Amy

In the vast landscape of poetic forms, the villanelle stands out as a captivating and challenging structure, known for its intricate rhyme scheme. Originating from the Italian word “villanella,” meaning “rustic song” or “peasant song,” this poetic form has evolved over centuries, captivating poets and readers alike with its rhythmic pattern and repeated lines. At the heart of the villanelle lies its distinctive rhyme scheme, which adds depth, resonance, and musicality to the poem. In this article, we delve into the art of villanelles, exploring their rhyme scheme, historical context, and enduring appeal in contemporary poetry.

Unraveling the Villanelle’s Rhyme Scheme

The hallmark of a villanelle is its strict and structured rhyme scheme, characterized by a pattern of repeating lines and a specific rhyme scheme. Traditionally, a villanelle consists of five tercets followed by a concluding quatrain, totaling 19 lines. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are alternately repeated as the final lines of the succeeding tercets and then brought together as the last two lines of the poem. This creates a powerful refrain that echoes throughout the villanelle, lending it a haunting and mesmerizing quality.

The rhyme scheme of a villanelle can be represented as follows, with letters indicating the rhyme pattern:

A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2

Here, “A1” and “A2” represent the repeated lines, while lowercase letters denote new rhymes introduced in each tercet. This intricate interplay of rhymes and refrains forms the backbone of the villanelle’s structure, challenging poets to craft meaningful and resonant lines that fit seamlessly within this framework.

A Historical Journey: Origins and Evolution of the Villanelle

The villanelle’s origins can be traced back to the folk songs of Italy and Spain, where simple, repetitive refrains were common in rural music and poetry. Over time, this musical form found its way into the realm of literary poetry, with notable poets like Jean Passerat and Théodore de Banville in France and Dylan Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop in the English-speaking world contributing to its popularity and refinement.

One of the most famous early villanelles is “Villanelle” by Jean Passerat, written in the 16th century. This poem exemplifies the form’s distinctive structure and rhyme scheme, setting the stage for future poets to explore its possibilities. The villanelle gained further prominence in the 19th and 20th centuries, with poets such as W. H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, and Dylan Thomas employing it to express a wide range of emotions and themes.

The Artistry of Rhyme: Why Villanelles Endure

The enduring appeal of the villanelle lies in its ability to blend structure and creativity, offering poets a unique canvas to explore complex emotions and ideas. The strict rhyme scheme, with its repeated lines, creates a sense of rhythm and continuity that draws readers into the poem’s world. The challenge of working within a fixed form also encourages poets to innovate within constraints, leading to unexpected and compelling results.

Moreover, the villanelle’s rhyme scheme contributes to its memorability and impact. The repetition of key lines reinforces the poem’s themes and imagery, leaving a lasting impression on the reader’s mind. This mnemonic quality has made villanelles favorites for recitation and performance, further cementing their place in the literary canon.

Crafting Villanelles: Tips for Poets

For poets looking to explore the villanelle’s rhyme scheme and structure, here are some tips and techniques to keep in mind:

1. Embrace the Repetition: The repeated lines in a villanelle are a central feature of the form. Use them strategically to reinforce your poem’s theme or to create a sense of progression and development.

2. Experiment with Rhyme: While the A1/A2 rhyme scheme is traditional, don’t be afraid to play with variations. Internal rhymes, slant rhymes, or unexpected rhymes can add depth and complexity to your villanelle.

3. Focus on Theme: Since villanelles often explore a single theme or idea, choose your subject matter carefully. The repetitive structure can intensify the emotional impact of your poem, so ensure that your theme resonates throughout.

4. Revise and Refine: Crafting a successful villanelle takes time and revision. Pay attention to the placement of your repeated lines, the flow of the refrains, and the overall coherence of the poem.

5. Read and Study Examples: Study classic and contemporary villanelles to understand how different poets have approached the form. Pay attention to their use of imagery, meter, and language to gain insights into effective villanelle writing.

Modern Takes on the Villanelle

In contemporary poetry, the villanelle continues to evolve and inspire poets to push the boundaries of form and expression. Poets like Natasha Trethewey, Annie Finch, and A.E. Stallings have all contributed stunning villanelles to the literary landscape, showcasing the form’s versatility and enduring relevance.

One notable example is “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke, which subverts traditional expectations while retaining the villanelle’s essential structure and rhyme scheme. Roethke’s poem explores themes of life, death, and renewal, demonstrating how the villanelle can accommodate profound philosophical inquiries within its structured framework.


The villanelle’s rhyme scheme is a testament to the artistry and discipline of poetic form. From its humble origins in folk music to its elevation as a revered literary form, the villanelle continues to captivate poets and readers alike with its rhythmic beauty and emotional resonance. Aspiring poets can embrace the challenge of crafting villanelles, drawing inspiration from centuries of tradition while infusing their unique voice and vision into this timeless poetic structure. In the realm of poetry, the villanelle remains a shining example of the harmonious interplay between structure and creativity, inviting poets to explore the depths of human experience through carefully woven words and refrains.


Do villanelles have iambic pentameter?

Villanelles, renowned for their intricate structure and captivating rhyme scheme, do not necessarily adhere to iambic pentameter. While many villanelles may indeed be written in iambic pentameter, a traditional meter consisting of five iambs (metrical feet with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), this is not a strict requirement of the form. The focus of a villanelle lies more in its repeating lines and specific rhyme scheme, rather than a prescribed meter.

What are the repeating lines in a villanelle?

The repeating lines in a villanelle are the first and third lines of the opening tercet, which alternate as the final lines of the succeeding tercets. These lines are then brought together as the last two lines of the poem. This repetition creates a powerful refrain that echoes throughout the villanelle, contributing to its rhythmic and memorable quality.

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