4 Rules For Villanelle You Must Know

by Amy

A villanelle is a highly structured poetic form that has captivated poets and readers alike for centuries. Its intricate rules and repetitive nature lend a unique charm to this poetic style, allowing poets to explore themes with depth and nuance. In this article, we will delve into the rules governing the creation of a villanelle, providing insights into its structure and offering tips for crafting a compelling villanelle poem.

What is a Villanelle?

Before delving into the rules, let’s first understand what a villanelle is. A villanelle is a 19-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme and repetitive lines. It is characterized by its use of refrains, which are lines that are repeated throughout the poem. The structure of a villanelle typically consists of five tercets followed by a quatrain.

Rule 1: Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of a villanelle is ABaAabABaAabABaAabAB. In simpler terms, the first and third lines of the poem rhyme with each other (A), while the second lines rhyme with each other (B). This pattern continues throughout the poem, creating a musical and rhythmic quality.

Rule 2: Repetition of Lines

One of the defining features of a villanelle is the repetition of two key lines, known as refrains. The first line of the poem is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth tercets, as well as the final line of the quatrain. Similarly, the third line of the poem is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth tercets, as well as the penultimate line of the quatrain.

Rule 3: Meter and Syllable Count

Traditionally, a villanelle is written in iambic pentameter, which means each line consists of five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables, totaling ten syllables per line. However, some modern variations may deviate from this strict meter, allowing for flexibility in syllable count while still maintaining the rhyme and refrain structure.

Rule 4: Theme and Narrative Development

While the rules of rhyme scheme and repetition provide a framework for the villanelle, the heart of the poem lies in its thematic exploration and narrative development. Poets often use the repetitive nature of the refrains to emphasize key ideas, emotions, or conflicts, creating a sense of depth and resonance within the poem.

Tips for Writing a Villanelle

1. Choose Your Refrains Wisely: Select lines that are versatile and can be interpreted in multiple ways, adding layers of meaning to your poem.
2. Create Contrast: Use the repetition of lines to create contrast or evolution in your themes or emotions, allowing the poem to unfold organically.
3. Experiment with Variation: While the traditional villanelle follows strict rules, don’t be afraid to experiment with variations in rhyme scheme, meter, or structure to suit your artistic vision.
4. Revise and Refine: A well-crafted villanelle often requires multiple revisions. Pay attention to the flow, rhythm, and impact of each line to ensure coherence and resonance.
5. Embrace the Challenge: Writing a villanelle can be challenging, but it also offers a rewarding creative experience. Embrace the constraints of the form and use them to fuel your creativity.

Examples of Villanelle Poems

To further illustrate the rules and potential of a villanelle, let’s explore examples of renowned villanelle poems:

1. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas: This iconic villanelle explores themes of defiance and mortality, with the refrain “Do not go gentle into that good night” echoing throughout the poem.
2. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop: In this villanelle, Bishop skillfully uses repetition to convey the gradual acceptance of loss, anchored by the refrain “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”


In conclusion, the rules for writing a villanelle encompass a specific rhyme scheme, repetition of lines, adherence to meter and syllable count, and a focus on thematic exploration. By understanding and embracing these rules while allowing room for creativity and interpretation, poets can craft compelling villanelle poems that resonate with readers on multiple levels. So, pick up your pen and embark on the captivating journey of villanelle composition, where structure meets creativity in poetic harmony.


Does a villanelle have to have 19 lines?

Yes, traditionally, a villanelle has 19 lines. This structure is integral to the form and contributes to its distinctive rhythm and repetition. The 19 lines are typically divided into five tercets (three-line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (four-line stanza). However, modern variations of the villanelle may deviate from this strict line count while still maintaining the essential elements of rhyme scheme, repetition, and thematic exploration.

What makes a good villanelle?

Several factors contribute to making a good villanelle:

1. Effective Use of Repetition: A good villanelle utilizes the repetition of lines (refrains) to enhance its thematic depth and emotional impact. The repeated lines should contribute to the overall meaning of the poem and create a sense of rhythm and resonance.

2. Strong Rhyme Scheme: The villanelle’s intricate rhyme scheme (ABaAabABaAabABaAabAB) adds musicality to the poem. A good villanelle maintains a consistent rhyme pattern while avoiding forced or awkward rhymes.

3. Thematic Cohesion: A successful villanelle weaves a cohesive narrative or explores a central theme throughout the poem. The repetition of lines can be used to reinforce key ideas or emotions, creating a unified and impactful piece.

4. Imagery and Language: Vivid imagery, evocative language, and skillful use of metaphor can elevate a villanelle and engage the reader on a sensory level. Strong word choice and poetic devices enhance the overall aesthetic and emotional resonance of the poem.

5. Balance of Structure and Creativity: While the villanelle adheres to a strict structure, including rhyme scheme, line count, and repetition, a good villanelle also showcases the poet’s creativity and originality within these constraints. Balancing structure with artistic expression is key to crafting a memorable villanelle.

6. Emotional Impact: Ultimately, a good villanelle leaves a lasting impression on the reader, evoking emotions, provoking thought, or sparking introspection. Whether through its lyrical beauty, poignant themes, or innovative approach, a well-crafted villanelle resonates with its audience and stands the test of time.

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