What Is the Most Famous Villanelle?

by Amy
What is the Most Famous Villanelle?

The villanelle, a highly structured form of poetry, has captivated poets and readers alike with its rhythmic repetitions and intricate patterns. Originating in the Renaissance period, the villanelle is characterized by its 19-line structure, consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain, and the repeating of two refrains throughout. Despite its strict form, the villanelle offers a unique space for poetic expression, blending formality with lyrical beauty.

Among the many villanelles written over the centuries, one stands out as the most famous: “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. This article explores the villanelle form, its history, and why Thomas’s poem holds such a prominent place in literary history. We will delve into the poem’s structure, themes, and impact, and also consider other notable villanelles that have contributed to the form’s rich legacy.

See also: How Many Stanzas Are in a Villanelle?

The Structure and History of the Villanelle

1. Origin and Development:

The villanelle originated in Italy during the Renaissance, deriving from the Italian word “villanella,” which referred to rustic songs or dance tunes. The form was later adopted and refined by French poets, particularly in the 16th century. Jean Passerat, a French poet, is often credited with popularizing the villanelle through his poem “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” (“I Have Lost My Turtle Dove”).

2. Defining Characteristics:

A villanelle is defined by its strict structure:
19 Lines: The poem consists of five tercets (three-line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (four-line stanza).
Rhyme Scheme: The rhyme scheme is ABA for the tercets and ABAA for the quatrain.
Refrains: The first and third lines of the opening tercet alternate as the final lines of the subsequent tercets and form a rhymed couplet at the end of the quatrain.

3. Evolution in English Poetry:

The villanelle form was adopted by English poets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Poets like Edmund Gosse, Austin Dobson, and Oscar Wilde experimented with the form, but it was not until the modernist period that the villanelle gained significant popularity in English literature. The form’s combination of lyrical repetition and emotional intensity appealed to modernist sensibilities, leading to its resurgence.

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

1. Background and Context:

Dylan Thomas wrote “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” in 1947, and it was published posthumously in his 1952 collection “In Country Sleep and Other Poems.” The poem is often interpreted as a response to the impending death of Thomas’s father, David John Thomas. It stands as a poignant reflection on mortality, resistance, and the human spirit.

2. Structure and Form:

Thomas adheres to the traditional villanelle structure, employing the following features:
Refrains: The first line, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and the third line, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” are repeated alternately as the final lines of the subsequent tercets and together as the final couplet.
Rhyme Scheme: The poem follows the ABA rhyme scheme for the tercets and ABAA for the quatrain.

3. Themes and Analysis:

The poem’s primary themes include defiance in the face of death, the struggle for life, and the desire for a meaningful existence. Thomas’s use of repetition emphasizes the urgency and intensity of these themes. Each tercet explores different facets of resistance to death, presenting various archetypes of men who “rage against the dying of the light”:
Wise Men: They understand the inevitability of death but refuse to accept it passively.
Good Men: They lament the fleeting nature of their deeds and strive for more time.
Wild Men: They regret not living fully and fight against their fate.
Grave Men: Despite their frailty, they find strength in their resistance.

4. Emotional Impact and Literary Significance:

“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is renowned for its emotional intensity and lyrical power. Thomas’s masterful use of the villanelle form enhances the poem’s rhythmic and musical qualities, creating a haunting and memorable reading experience. The poem’s exploration of universal themes of life, death, and defiance resonates deeply with readers, contributing to its lasting impact and prominence in the literary canon.

Other Notable Villanelles

While “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is the most famous villanelle, other significant examples have contributed to the form’s rich history. These poems showcase the versatility and enduring appeal of the villanelle.

1. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop:

Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” published in 1976, is another highly acclaimed villanelle. The poem explores the theme of loss, using a conversational tone and gradual buildup of emotional intensity. Bishop’s use of the villanelle form allows her to juxtapose the mundane with the profound, culminating in a poignant reflection on the nature of losing and the human capacity for resilience.

2. “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke:

Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” published in 1953, is a reflective and meditative villanelle that explores themes of consciousness, learning, and self-discovery. The poem’s repeating refrains, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow” and “I learn by going where I have to go,” create a rhythmic and contemplative mood, inviting readers to ponder the cyclical nature of life and personal growth.

3. “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath:

Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” written in 1953, is a haunting and evocative villanelle that delves into themes of love, loss, and mental anguish. The poem’s refrains, “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead” and “I think I made you up inside my head,” convey a sense of emotional turmoil and disillusionment. Plath’s use of the villanelle form intensifies the poem’s lyrical and psychological depth.

The Villanelle in Contemporary Poetry

1. Continued Appeal and Adaptation:

The villanelle continues to appeal to contemporary poets, who appreciate its formal constraints and opportunities for creative expression. Modern poets often adapt the traditional form, experimenting with variations in rhyme, meter, and thematic content. The villanelle’s structure provides a framework for exploring complex emotions and ideas, making it a versatile and enduring poetic form.

2. Examples of Contemporary Villanelles:

Contemporary poets like A.E. Stallings, Natasha Trethewey, and Jericho Brown have written notable villanelles that reflect the form’s continued relevance and adaptability. These poets draw on the rich tradition of the villanelle while bringing fresh perspectives and innovative approaches to the form.

3. The Role of Workshops and Poetry Communities:

Poetry workshops and literary communities play a crucial role in promoting the villanelle and encouraging poets to experiment with the form. Organizations like the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation offer resources and support for poets interested in exploring the villanelle, fostering a vibrant and dynamic environment for poetic creativity.


The villanelle, with its intricate structure and lyrical beauty, remains one of the most captivating forms of poetry. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas stands as the most famous villanelle, exemplifying the form’s emotional intensity and enduring appeal. Through its exploration of universal themes of life, death, and defiance, Thomas’s poem has left an indelible mark on the literary canon.

Other notable villanelles, such as Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” demonstrate the form’s versatility and richness. These poems, along with contemporary examples, showcase the continued relevance and adaptability of the villanelle in expressing complex emotions and ideas.

As poets continue to experiment with and adapt the villanelle, this timeless form will undoubtedly remain a cherished and influential part of the poetic tradition. By appreciating the artistry and craftsmanship of villanelles, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the power of poetry to capture the essence of human experience and emotion.

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