Does Villanelle Need 10 Syllables?

by Amy

In poetry, meter refers to the rhythmic structure of lines, which is determined by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Syllable count plays a crucial role in establishing this rhythm, giving the poem its musicality and flow. When considering the form of a villanelle, understanding its meter is essential for both readers and writers who wish to appreciate or create this structured type of poetry.

Traditional Syllable Count

Traditionally, many English-language villanelles use 10 syllables per line, often employing a metrical pattern known as iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter consists of five pairs of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM). This meter gives the poem a formal, rhythmic quality that complements the villanelle’s repetitive structure. Using 10 syllables per line helps to maintain a steady cadence, allowing the refrains to resonate more strongly with each repetition.

Flexibility in Syllable Count

While the traditional use of 10 syllables per line in villanelles is common, modern poetry often exhibits flexibility in syllable count. Contemporary poets sometimes deviate from strict syllabic patterns to suit their creative needs or thematic purposes. As long as the villanelle adheres to its fundamental structural requirements—19 lines composed of five tercets followed by a quatrain, with a specific rhyme scheme and alternating refrains—variations in syllable count can be acceptable. This flexibility allows poets to experiment with rhythm and enhance the poem’s emotional or thematic impact.

Examples of Villanelles

Traditional Example

“Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas: This iconic villanelle uses the traditional 10-syllable line structure, employing iambic pentameter to create a rhythmic and forceful plea against the inevitability of death. The repeated refrains, “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” gain intensity through their rhythmic consistency.

Modern Example

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop: While Bishop’s villanelle maintains a regular meter, her lines sometimes fluctuate slightly in syllable count, enhancing the poem’s exploration of loss and mastery. The line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” is repeated with subtle variations that deepen its meaning with each occurrence.

Examples of Villanelles with Varied Syllable Counts: Contemporary poets often experiment with the villanelle form, deviating from the traditional 10-syllable pattern to explore new rhythms and thematic possibilities. These variations can add layers of complexity and emotional depth to the poem, demonstrating the villanelle’s versatility.

Practical Tips for Writing Villanelles

Choosing a Syllable Count: Decide whether to follow the traditional 10-syllable pattern or experiment with different syllable counts. Consider how the syllable count will affect the poem’s rhythm and thematic expression.

Maintaining Consistency: If you choose a specific syllable count, strive to maintain consistency throughout the poem to preserve its rhythmic integrity.

Experimenting with Meter: Feel free to experiment with different metrical patterns, such as tetrameter (8 syllables per line) or hexameter (12 syllables per line), to find what best suits your poem’s tone and message.

Focus on Refrains: Ensure that your refrains are strong and adaptable, capable of bearing repetition and deepening in meaning with each recurrence.

See also: Does A Villanelle Have 14 Lines?

Common Misconceptions

Necessity of 10 Syllables: While 10 syllables per line is a traditional choice, it is not a strict requirement for a villanelle. Modern poetry allows for flexibility and experimentation, and poets can successfully use different syllable counts.

Rigid Structure: Although the villanelle has a fixed structural form, the rigidity applies more to its stanza arrangement and rhyme scheme rather than to a specific syllable count. The form’s essence lies in its repetition and rhyme, not in adhering strictly to a 10-syllable line.


In conclusion, while a traditional villanelle often employs lines of 10 syllables, this is not a strict requirement. The form’s beauty lies in its structured repetition and rhyme scheme, which create a unique rhythmic and thematic resonance. By understanding the traditional meter and exploring modern flexibility, poets can craft villanelles that are both formally rigorous and creatively expressive. Examples from renowned poets like Dylan Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop illustrate how both adherence to and deviation from traditional syllable counts can enhance a villanelle’s impact. Aspiring poets should feel encouraged to experiment with syllable counts, focusing on maintaining the core structural elements of the villanelle while allowing their creative voice to shine through.

FAQs about Villanelle and Other Poetic Forms

1. How many lines are in a villanelle?

A villanelle consists of 19 lines. This structure includes five tercets (three-line stanzas) followed by a concluding quatrain (four-line stanza). The fixed 19-line format is essential to the villanelle form.

2. What do you call a poem with 14 lines?

A poem with 14 lines is called a sonnet. There are several types of sonnets, including the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet, the English (Shakespearean) sonnet, and the Spenserian sonnet, each with its own specific rhyme scheme and structure.

3. What type of poem has 19 lines?

The type of poem that has 19 lines is a villanelle. The villanelle is characterized by its specific structure of five tercets followed by a quatrain, along with its distinctive rhyme scheme (ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA) and the use of two alternating refrains.

4. How long should a villanelle be?

A villanelle should be exactly 19 lines long. This fixed length is crucial to maintaining the integrity of the villanelle form. The 19 lines are divided into six stanzas: five tercets and one final quatrain, adhering to a strict rhyme scheme and refrain pattern.

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