How Many Stanzas Are in a Villanelle?

by Amy
Poem Writing

The villanelle is a fixed verse form that originated in the French Renaissance. Known for its strict structure and intricate patterns, the villanelle has been a favorite among poets who enjoy working within defined poetic constraints. Understanding the form and structure of a villanelle, including the number of stanzas, is essential for both readers and writers of poetry. This article delves into the details of the villanelle, its historical context, its structural components, and its impact on the literary world.

Historical Context of the Villanelle

The villanelle’s roots trace back to Italy, but it flourished in France during the 16th century. The term “villanelle” is derived from the Italian word “villanella,” which means a rustic song or dance. Originally, villanelles were simple pastoral or rustic songs, but over time, they evolved into the highly structured poetic form known today.

The modern villanelle owes much of its development to French poets such as Jean Passerat, whose poem “Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma tourterelle)” is often credited with solidifying the form. The villanelle was later embraced by English poets, most notably in the 19th and 20th centuries, with works by poets like Dylan Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop, who popularized the form in the English-speaking world.

Structure of a Villanelle

The villanelle consists of 19 lines arranged into six stanzas. Here is a detailed breakdown of the villanelle’s structure:

1. Five Tercets (Three-Line Stanzas)
2. One Quatrain (Four-Line Stanza)

This distinctive arrangement creates a pattern that is both challenging and rewarding for poets to work within. The first and third lines of the first tercet are repeated alternately at the end of each subsequent tercet and both lines are repeated again in the final quatrain. The rhyme scheme is ABA for the tercets and ABAA for the quatrain.

Repetition and Rhyme Scheme

One of the most notable features of the villanelle is its use of refrains. The first and third lines of the initial tercet serve as refrains that alternate as the final lines of the subsequent tercets and are both included in the last two lines of the concluding quatrain. This repetition gives the villanelle its musicality and often imbues the poem with a haunting or meditative quality.

The rhyme scheme of a villanelle is strict, following an ABA pattern for the tercets and ABAA for the quatrain. This rhyme scheme, combined with the repeated lines, creates a tightly woven structure that challenges poets to find fresh ways to convey their themes within the form’s constraints.

Thematic Elements of the Villanelle

Due to its repetitive nature, the villanelle is well-suited to themes of obsession, compulsion, and the cyclical nature of life. The repeated lines can emphasize a particular emotion or idea, allowing the poet to explore it from multiple angles. The form’s structure often mirrors the content, with the repetition underscoring the inevitability or persistence of the theme.

Many poets have used the villanelle to explore themes of love, loss, and mortality. The form’s cyclical nature can reflect the ongoing process of grief or the repetitive nature of certain emotional experiences. The constraints of the form force poets to distill their ideas to their essence, often resulting in powerful and evocative poetry.

Famous Villanelles

Several villanelles have become well-known and are frequently studied in literature courses. These poems exemplify the form’s potential for beauty and complexity.

“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas: Perhaps the most famous villanelle in the English language, this poem uses the repetitive structure to emphasize the plea to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop: This villanelle explores the theme of loss, with the repeated line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” gaining depth and poignancy with each repetition.
“Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath: This poem uses the villanelle form to convey a sense of emotional turmoil and obsession, with the repeated lines adding to the intensity of the speaker’s experience.

Writing a Villanelle

Writing a villanelle can be a challenging but rewarding endeavor. The strict structure requires careful planning and creativity to ensure that the repeated lines fit seamlessly into the poem’s overall theme and tone. Here are some tips for writing a villanelle:

1. Choose Your Refrains Carefully: The first and third lines of the first tercet will be repeated multiple times throughout the poem, so it’s important to choose lines that are flexible enough to fit in various contexts and that carry significant emotional or thematic weight.

2. Plan Your Rhyme Scheme: The ABA rhyme scheme means that you’ll need a number of words that rhyme with your chosen end words. It’s helpful to brainstorm a list of rhyming words before you begin writing to ensure that you have enough options.

3. Think About the Theme: The repetitive nature of the villanelle makes it well-suited to themes that benefit from repetition, such as obsession, compulsion, or the cyclical nature of life. Consider how the structure can enhance the content of your poem.

4. Write Flexibly: While the form is strict, it’s important to remain flexible in your approach. Don’t be afraid to revise your refrains or rhyme words if they aren’t working as you progress through the poem.

5. Revise and Refine: Writing a villanelle often requires multiple drafts. Pay close attention to how the repeated lines interact with the surrounding text and make adjustments as needed to ensure coherence and impact.

The Villanelle in Contemporary Poetry

While the villanelle has its roots in the Renaissance, it remains a popular form among contemporary poets. The challenge of working within its constraints can lead to innovative and compelling poetry. Many modern poets have experimented with the form, finding new ways to make it their own.

Contemporary villanelles often play with the expectations of the form, using enjambment, varied line lengths, and unconventional themes to create fresh and surprising poems. This flexibility within structure allows poets to maintain the essence of the villanelle while pushing the boundaries of what the form can achieve.


The villanelle, with its 19 lines and six stanzas, is a testament to the beauty and power of structured poetry. Its combination of repetition and rhyme creates a musical and evocative form that has captivated poets and readers for centuries. Understanding the number of stanzas and the intricate structure of the villanelle is crucial for appreciating the artistry involved in crafting these poems.

Whether exploring themes of love, loss, or the passage of time, the villanelle offers poets a unique framework within which to express their deepest emotions and ideas. The enduring popularity of the form speaks to its versatility and the creative potential it offers to those willing to embrace its challenges. As contemporary poets continue to experiment with the villanelle, this timeless form will undoubtedly continue to evolve and inspire future generations.

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