What Is The Origin Of Villanelle’s Poem?

by Amy

The villanelle, a poetic form renowned for its intricate structure and lyrical beauty, has a fascinating history that traces back to the rustic past of Italy. The term “villanelle” originates from the Italian word “villanella,” which referred to simple, rustic songs or dances performed by peasants. These early villanellas were characterized by their straightforward, repetitive nature, often dealing with pastoral themes and the lives of rural folk.

The early villanellas were part of the oral tradition, with their simple and repetitive structure making them easy to remember and perform. As these rustic songs and dances gained popularity, they began to influence the written poetry of the time. However, it was in France during the Renaissance that the villanelle began to evolve into the fixed poetic form we recognize today.

Key Figures

One of the key figures in the formalization of the villanelle was Jean Passerat, a French poet who lived during the late 16th century. Passerat’s poem “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” (I Have Lost My Turtle Dove), written in 1574, is often credited with establishing the modern villanelle’s fixed form. This poem adhered to the strict structure of nineteen lines, five tercets followed by a quatrain, and a precise rhyme scheme with repeated refrains. Passerat’s work set the standard for the villanelle and influenced subsequent poets who embraced and experimented with the form.

Although Passerat is often credited with the formalization of the villanelle, it is important to recognize that the development of the form was a gradual process influenced by various poets and literary trends. The villanelle’s structure, with its repetitive refrains and fixed rhyme scheme, was particularly suited to the expression of intense emotions and complex themes, making it a popular choice for poets seeking to convey depth and resonance in their work.

Cultural Context

The emergence of the villanelle in Renaissance France was influenced by the broader cultural and artistic movements of the time. The Renaissance was characterized by a revival of interest in classical forms and an emphasis on artistic innovation and refinement. Poets and writers sought to elevate and formalize traditional forms of expression, leading to the transformation of the villanelle from a rustic song into a sophisticated and highly structured poetic form.

The cultural context of the Renaissance, with its focus on humanism and the exploration of individual emotions and experiences, provided fertile ground for the development of the villanelle. The form’s repetitive and cyclical nature resonated with the themes of love, loss, and longing that were prevalent in Renaissance poetry. The villanelle’s structure allowed poets to explore these themes with a sense of musicality and lyrical beauty, making it a popular choice for expressing intense emotions and complex ideas.

The Renaissance was also a time of significant social and political change, with the rise of nation-states and the spread of new ideas through the invention of the printing press. These developments facilitated the dissemination of literary works and the exchange of cultural influences, contributing to the spread and evolution of the villanelle form.

See also: Where Did The Villanelle Poem Originate?

Evolution of the Form

The villanelle continued to evolve over the centuries, with poets in the 19th and 20th centuries further refining and popularizing the form. In the 19th century, English poets began to experiment with the villanelle, adapting it to the English language and literary tradition. Poets such as W.E. Henley and Austin Dobson were among the early adopters of the form in English literature.

The 20th century saw a resurgence of interest in the villanelle, with poets like Dylan Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop creating some of the most famous and widely studied villanelles in English. Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” and Bishop’s “One Art” are exemplary of the form’s potential to convey powerful emotions and explore profound themes.

The evolution of the villanelle from its rustic origins to its current form involved several key changes:

Structure: The villanelle’s structure became more rigidly defined, with a fixed pattern of nineteen lines, five tercets followed by a quatrain, and a specific rhyme scheme.

Repetition: The use of refrains, with the first and third lines of the opening tercet repeated alternately in subsequent stanzas and together in the final quatrain, became a defining characteristic of the form.

Themes: While early villanellas often dealt with pastoral themes, the modern villanelle has expanded to encompass a wide range of subjects, including love, loss, nature, and existential reflection.

Notable Examples

To illustrate the characteristics and evolution of the villanelle, it is helpful to examine some famous examples that showcase the form’s unique qualities:

“J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” by Jean Passerat

This poem is often credited with establishing the modern villanelle form. It features the repeating refrains and strict rhyme scheme that define the villanelle.


“J’ay perdu ma tourterelle,
Est-ce point celle que j’oy?
Je veux aller après elle.
Tu regrettes ta femelle,
Hélas! aussi fais-je moy,
J’ay perdu ma tourterelle.”

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

One of the most famous villanelles in English literature, this poem explores themes of resistance and defiance in the face of death. Its powerful refrains and lyrical beauty have made it a classic example of the form.


“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

Bishop’s villanelle deals with the theme of loss and the struggle to accept it. The repetition of the refrains creates a sense of inevitability and resignation, while also expressing deep personal emotion.


“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”

“Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath

Plath’s villanelle explores themes of love, madness, and memory. The repetition of the refrains creates a haunting and surreal atmosphere, reflecting the poem’s intense emotional content.


“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

“The Waking” by Theodore Roethke

Roethke’s villanelle is a meditation on life, awareness, and the natural world. The poem’s refrains and rhythm create a reflective and contemplative mood.


“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.”


The villanelle, with its origins in rustic Italian songs and its transformation into a sophisticated poetic form during the Renaissance, stands as a testament to the enduring power of structured verse. Through the contributions of key figures like Jean Passerat and the cultural influences of the Renaissance, the villanelle evolved into a fixed form characterized by its intricate structure, repetitive refrains, and lyrical beauty.

The villanelle’s evolution continued through the centuries, with poets in the 19th and 20th centuries further refining and popularizing the form. Today, the villanelle remains a beloved and challenging form for poets, offering a unique blend of musicality, repetition, and thematic depth that continues to captivate and inspire.

Notable examples of villanelles, such as Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” demonstrate the form’s unique characteristics and its potential to convey profound and resonant meanings. These poems, with their lyrical beauty and emotional intensity, illustrate the timeless appeal of the villanelle as a poetic form that transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries.

FAQs About Villanelle Poetry

1. Who introduced the villanelle?

The villanelle, as a structured poetic form, was introduced and formalized by French poet Jean Passerat in the late 16th century. His poem “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” (I Have Lost My Turtle Dove) is often credited with establishing the fixed form of the villanelle that includes nineteen lines, five tercets followed by a quatrain, and a specific rhyme scheme with repeated refrains.

2. Where did villanelles originate?

The origins of the villanelle can be traced back to Italy, where the term “villanella” referred to rustic songs or dances performed by peasants. These early villanellas were simple and repetitive, often associated with pastoral themes. The form was later adopted and transformed by French poets during the Renaissance, leading to the creation of the fixed poetic structure that we recognize today as the villanelle.

3. Who popularized the villanelle?

While Jean Passerat is credited with formalizing the villanelle, it was poets in the 19th and 20th centuries who popularized the form, particularly in English literature. Notable poets such as W.E. Henley and Austin Dobson were among the early adopters in the English-speaking world. The form gained significant popularity with the works of 20th-century poets like Dylan Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop, whose villanelles are widely studied and admired.

4. What poets are most associated with the villanelle?

Several poets are closely associated with the villanelle, each contributing to its development and popularity. Key figures include:

Jean Passerat: Credited with formalizing the villanelle with his poem “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle.”

W.E. Henley and Austin Dobson: Early adopters of the villanelle in English literature during the 19th century.

Dylan Thomas: His villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is one of the most famous examples of the form.

Elizabeth Bishop: Known for her villanelle “One Art,” which deals with themes of loss and acceptance.

Sylvia Plath: Her villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song” explores themes of love, madness, and memory.

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