What Is The Style Of A Villanelle?

by Amy

The villanelle is a poetic form that has captivated poets and readers alike for centuries. Its unique structure and lyrical qualities make it a challenging yet rewarding form of poetry to write and appreciate. In this article, we will delve into the style of a villanelle, exploring its history, structure, themes, and notable examples in the literary world.

Understanding the Villanelle Form

The villanelle is a highly structured poetic form that originated in medieval France. It gained popularity during the Renaissance and Baroque periods and has continued to be a favorite among poets in modern times. The form is characterized by its specific rhyme scheme and repeating lines, creating a musical and rhythmic quality that sets it apart from other poetic forms.

Rhyme Scheme and Structure

The most distinctive feature of a villanelle is its intricate rhyme scheme. The poem is composed of 19 lines divided into five tercets (three-line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (four-line stanza). The rhyme scheme is as follows:

  • The first and third lines of the opening tercet rhyme with each other (A1 and A2).
  • The second and fourth lines of the second tercet rhyme with each other and with the first and third lines of the opening tercet (A1 and A2 again).
  • This pattern continues throughout the poem, with the first and third lines of each tercet becoming the refrain lines that alternate as the final lines of the subsequent tercets and the quatrain.
  • The final quatrain uses both refrain lines, with the first line of the poem serving as the final line, creating a circular structure.

Meter and Rhythm

In terms of meter, villanelles often follow a pattern of iambic pentameter, with five metrical feet per line. This rhythmic pattern contributes to the musicality of the poem and adds to its lyrical appeal. However, some villanelles may deviate from strict iambic pentameter depending on the poet’s stylistic choices.

Themes and Subjects in Villanelles

The villanelle form lends itself well to a variety of themes and subjects. Its repeating lines allow poets to explore ideas in depth and add layers of meaning through subtle variations. Common themes found in villanelles include love, loss, memory, and the passage of time. The form’s structured nature provides a framework for poets to craft intricate and evocative expressions of these themes.

Love and Longing

One of the most popular themes in villanelles is love and longing. Poets often use the repetitive nature of the form to convey the cyclical nature of emotions, from desire and passion to heartache and yearning. The refrain lines serve as echoes of the poem’s central emotions, creating a sense of continuity and resonance.

Nature and Seasons

Villanelles also frequently explore themes related to nature and the changing seasons. The form’s structured repetition can mirror the cycles of nature, from the blooming of flowers in spring to the quietude of winter. Poets use vivid imagery and sensory language to evoke the beauty and transience of the natural world.

Existential and Philosophical Themes

In addition to more traditional themes, villanelles are well-suited for exploring existential and philosophical ideas. Poets may delve into questions of identity, mortality, and the human condition, using the form’s rhythmic repetition to underscore the recurring themes of life’s complexities.

Notable Examples of Villanelles

Throughout literary history, many renowned poets have embraced the villanelle form and produced memorable works that showcase its style and versatility. Here are some notable examples:

1. “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night” is perhaps one of the most famous examples of the form. The poem’s urgent plea to resist death’s inevitability is amplified by the repetitive refrain lines, creating a sense of defiance and emotional intensity.

2. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is another celebrated villanelle that explores the theme of loss and resilience. The poem’s structured repetition mirrors the gradual acceptance of loss, culminating in the poignant refrain “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

3. “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke’s villanelle “The Waking” delves into themes of self-awareness and transformation. The poem’s rhythmic cadence and reflective refrain lines underscore the speaker’s journey of inner discovery and awakening.


In conclusion, the villanelle is a captivating poetic form characterized by its intricate rhyme scheme, rhythmic repetition, and ability to explore a wide range of themes. From love and nature to existential questions, the villanelle offers poets a structured yet flexible canvas for expressing complex emotions and ideas. Its enduring appeal lies in its musicality, depth, and timeless beauty, making it a cherished form in the landscape of poetry.

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