How Many Lines Does A Villanelle Poem Consists Of?

by Amy

A villanelle is a highly structured poetic form that originated in 16th-century France. It is known for its unique structure, consisting of 19 lines divided into five tercets (three-line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (four-line stanza). The villanelle is characterized by its intricate rhyme scheme and repeating lines, creating a musical and lyrical quality that distinguishes it from other poetic forms. In this article, we will explore the specific structure of a villanelle poem, its history, famous examples, and tips for writing your own villanelle.

Understanding the Structure of a Villanelle

A traditional villanelle follows a strict pattern of alternating refrains and rhymes. The first and third lines of the opening tercet (A1 and A2) are repeated alternately as the last lines of the subsequent tercets and then come together as the last two lines of the poem. Meanwhile, the second line of the opening tercet (B) is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth tercets and then serves as the third-to-last line of the final quatrain. This creates a distinctive rhythm and thematic unity throughout the poem.

Here is the basic structure of a villanelle:

Tercet 1: A1 B A2
Tercet 2: A B A
Tercet 3: A B A
Tercet 4: A B A
Tercet 5: A B A
Quatrain: A B A2 A1

In total, a villanelle consists of 19 lines, with a rhyme scheme of ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA.

The History of the Villanelle

The villanelle has a rich history dating back to 16th-century France, where it was initially used for pastoral or rustic themes. The form gained popularity among French poets and later spread to English literature, becoming a favored form for poets like Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop.

One of the earliest known examples of a villanelle is Jean Passerat’s “Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)” from the 16th century. Passerat’s poem follows the traditional structure of the villanelle and exemplifies its use of repetition and rhyme to create a memorable and melodic composition.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the villanelle experienced a revival in popularity among English-speaking poets. Poets such as W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, and Dylan Thomas contributed notable villanelles to the literary canon, showcasing the form’s versatility and enduring appeal.

Famous Examples of Villanelles

1. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas:

This iconic villanelle is perhaps one of the most famous examples of the form. Thomas’s poem explores themes of mortality and defiance, with the repeated refrain “Do not go gentle into that good night” urging readers to resist death’s inevitability.

2. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop:

Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” is a meditation on loss and the art of letting go. The poem’s repeated refrain, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” underscores the speaker’s attempts to cope with various forms of loss, from keys to loved ones.

3. “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke:

Roethke’s villanelle “The Waking” delves into themes of existence, consciousness, and the cyclical nature of life. The poem’s refrain, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow,” reflects on the paradoxical aspects of being alive.

These examples demonstrate the versatility of the villanelle form, as poets use it to explore a wide range of emotions, themes, and experiences.

Tips for Writing a Villanelle

If you’re interested in trying your hand at writing a villanelle, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Start with a theme or central idea: Villanelles often revolve around a particular theme or emotion. Begin by choosing a topic that resonates with you and lends itself well to the form’s repetitive structure.

2. Establish your refrains: Identify the lines that will serve as your refrains (A1, A2, and B) and ensure they are strong and impactful. These lines will be repeated throughout the poem, so they should contribute significantly to its overall meaning and effect.

3. Pay attention to rhyme and meter: The villanelle’s rhyme scheme (ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA) and iambic pentameter or tetrameter meter (depending on preference) are integral to its structure. Be mindful of maintaining consistent rhyme and meter while crafting your poem.

4. Embrace repetition creatively: Use the repetition of refrains to create emphasis, build tension, or evoke a sense of continuity. Experiment with variations in tone, imagery, or interpretation each time a refrain recurs to keep the poem engaging.

5. Revise and refine: Like any poetic form, crafting a successful villanelle may require multiple revisions. Pay attention to word choice, line breaks, and the overall flow of the poem as you refine your work.

6. Study existing villanelles: Familiarize yourself with classic and contemporary villanelles to gain inspiration and insights into the form’s possibilities. Analyze how other poets use repetition, rhyme, and structure to convey meaning and emotion.

By following these tips and immersing yourself in the world of villanelles, you can create a compelling and memorable poem that honors this timeless poetic form.


A villanelle is a structured and lyrical poetic form characterized by its intricate rhyme scheme, repetitive refrains, and thematic unity. Originating in 16th-century France, the villanelle has evolved over centuries to become a beloved form among poets worldwide. Famous examples such as Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” showcase the form’s versatility and emotional depth.

Whether you’re a seasoned poet or exploring poetry for the first time, writing a villanelle can be a rewarding creative challenge. By understanding its structure, studying famous examples, and experimenting with themes and refrains, you can craft a villanelle that resonates with readers and captures the timeless beauty of this poetic form.

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