Do Villanelles Use Iambic Pentameter?

by Amy

Villanelles are a form of poetry known for their intricate structure and repetitive nature. They typically consist of 19 lines divided into five tercets followed by a quatrain, with a specific rhyme scheme and refrain lines. One common question that arises about villanelles is whether they adhere to iambic pentameter, a rhythmic pattern widely used in English poetry. In this article, we will explore the relationship between villanelles and iambic pentameter to understand how these poetic elements intersect and diverge.

Understanding Villanelles

Before delving into the technical aspects of iambic pentameter, let’s first grasp the essential features of a villanelle. This poetic form originated in France and gained popularity in English literature during the 19th and 20th centuries. A classic villanelle consists of the following structural elements:

1. Nineteen Lines: A villanelle comprises 19 lines divided into five tercets (three-line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (four-line stanza).

2. Rhyme Scheme: The rhyme scheme of a villanelle is ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA. This pattern alternates between two rhymes throughout the poem.

3. Refrain Lines: Two lines are repeated throughout the villanelle: the first line of the poem is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth tercets, and the third line of the poem is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth tercets and as the penultimate line of the quatrain.

Exploring Iambic Pentameter

Iambic pentameter is a rhythmic pattern commonly found in English poetry. It consists of ten syllables per line, with the stress falling on every second syllable (iambic rhythm). This rhythmic structure creates a natural flow and is often associated with the sound of a heartbeat or natural speech patterns. Many classic English poems, including Shakespeare’s sonnets and much of John Milton’s work, are written in iambic pentameter.

In iambic pentameter, each line typically follows the pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (iamb). For example, consider the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

In these lines, the stressed syllables are indicated in bold:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

Do Villanelles Follow Iambic Pentameter?

Now, let’s address the central question: do villanelles use iambic pentameter? The answer is not straightforward. While villanelles are known for their strict rhyme and refrain patterns, they do not necessarily adhere to iambic pentameter. Unlike forms like the sonnet, which often follow iambic pentameter, villanelles prioritize their unique structure and rhyme scheme over strict metrical patterns.

However, this doesn’t mean that iambic pentameter cannot be incorporated into a villanelle. Poets have the freedom to vary the meter within a villanelle while still maintaining its essential form. Some villanelles may contain lines or sections written in iambic pentameter, while others may diverge from this pattern to create different rhythmic effects.

Variations in Villanelles

One of the beauties of villanelles is their versatility within a structured framework. Poets can play with meter, tone, and imagery while staying true to the villanelle’s repetitive structure. This flexibility allows for creative expression while maintaining the recognizable form of the villanelle.

Some poets may choose to use iambic pentameter in certain lines of a villanelle to emphasize key themes or create a specific cadence. Others may experiment with different meters, such as trochaic or anapestic, to achieve varying effects within the poem. Ultimately, the use of meter in a villanelle depends on the poet’s artistic choices and the desired impact on the reader.

Examples of Meter in Villanelles

To illustrate the interplay between villanelles and meter, let’s examine a few examples from renowned poets:

1. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas: This villanelle employs a varied meter, including iambic pentameter, to convey the urgency and defiance of the poem’s message. The rhythmic shifts enhance the emotional depth of the piece.

2. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop: While not strictly iambic pentameter throughout, Bishop’s villanelle maintains a consistent rhythm that complements the poem’s contemplative tone. The meter contributes to the poem’s sense of inevitability and loss.

3. “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath: Plath’s villanelle combines iambic pentameter with other meters to create a haunting atmosphere reflective of the poem’s themes of love and longing. The varied meter adds complexity to the emotional landscape of the piece.


In conclusion, while villanelles do not necessarily adhere to iambic pentameter, they offer poets a structured yet flexible form for creative expression. The repetitive nature of villanelles, with their strict rhyme and refrain patterns, allows for thematic exploration and emotional resonance. Poets may choose to incorporate iambic pentameter or other meters into a villanelle to enhance its rhythmic impact and convey specific nuances.

Ultimately, the relationship between villanelles and meter is one of artistic choice and experimentation. Whether poets opt for traditional iambic pentameter or explore alternative meters within a villanelle, the result is a poetic form that continues to captivate and inspire readers with its timeless allure.

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