Who Is the Father of Villanelle?

by Amy
Edmund Gosse

The villanelle, a poetic form renowned for its intricate structure and repeating refrains, has captivated poets and readers alike for centuries. Originating from medieval French and Italian traditions, the villanelle has evolved into a challenging and compelling form of poetic expression. This article delves deep into the history, development, and influential figures associated with the villanelle, ultimately aiming to answer the question: Who is the Father of Villanelle?

See also: What is the Most Famous Villanelle?

Introduction to the Villanelle Form

The villanelle is characterized by its strict structural rules and distinctive rhyme scheme, which create a musical and thematic resonance throughout the poem. Traditionally, a villanelle consists of:

Nineteen lines: Structured into five tercets (three-line stanzas) followed by a concluding quatrain (four-line stanza).
Rhyme scheme: The first and third lines of the opening tercet alternate as the final lines of the subsequent tercets, before appearing together in the final quatrain.
Refrains: The first line of the poem recurs as the last line of the second and fourth tercets, while the third line of the opening tercet recurs as the last line of the third and fifth tercets, and joins the first line in the final quatrain.

This repetitive structure allows poets to explore themes of obsession, memory, and existential concerns with a distinctive blend of formality and lyrical grace.

Early Origins: Italian Villanella and French Adaptation

Italian Villanella: Ancestral Roots

The roots of the villanelle can be traced back to medieval Italy, where it originally existed as a simple, rustic song form known as the villanella. These early songs were characterized by their repetitive refrains and often celebrated themes of rural life, love, and nature.

French Transformation: Emergence of the Villanelle

In the 16th century, French poets began to adopt and adapt the Italian villanella form, transforming it into the structured verse that would later become known as the villanelle. Early French villanelles retained some of the pastoral themes of their Italian predecessors but evolved stylistically to accommodate the tastes and literary traditions of the French court.

Jean Passerat: Pioneer of the Villanelle Form

Jean Passerat (1534-1602), a French poet and scholar, is widely regarded as one of the key figures in the development of the villanelle form. His innovative use of the form helped establish its popularity and influence in French literature.

Passerat’s Contributions to French Poetry

Passerat’s poetic career was marked by his experimentation with various forms and genres, but it is his mastery of the villanelle that distinguishes him as a pioneer. His villanelles demonstrated a keen understanding of the form’s structural possibilities and lyrical potential.

Example: Jean Passerat’s Villanelle “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle”

J’ay perdu ma tourterelle:
Est-ce point celle que j’oy?
Je veux aller après elle.

Tu regrettes ta femelle,
Helas! je la cherche toy:
J’ay perdu ma tourterelle.

Si ton amour est fidelle,
A ton mal aide ma foy:
Je veux aller après elle.

Las! que l’amour est cruelle
Puis qu’un d’un coup il descoy:
J’ay perdu ma tourterelle.

Un penser souvent m’appelle,
D’un desir douloureux, à moy.
Je veux aller après elle.

This villanelle exemplifies Passerat’s skillful use of refrains and rhyme scheme to create a poignant exploration of loss and longing, themes that resonate deeply within the villanelle tradition.

The Spread of the Villanelle Form

Following Passerat’s contributions, the villanelle form gained popularity among French poets, who continued to refine and expand its possibilities. The structured nature of the villanelle appealed to poets seeking to explore themes of love, mortality, and the passage of time with formal rigor and emotional intensity.

The Influence of Théodore de Banville

Théodore de Banville (1823-1891), a French poet and critic of the Parnassian movement, played a significant role in revitalizing interest in the villanelle form during the 19th century. Banville’s advocacy for poetic formality and meticulous craftsmanship contributed to a resurgence of interest in traditional verse forms, including the villanelle.

Banville’s Villanelles: Revival and Refinement

Banville’s own villanelles are characterized by their technical precision and lyrical elegance. He embraced the form’s structured constraints as a means of achieving poetic clarity and emotional resonance.

Example: Théodore de Banville’s Villanelle “La Lune blanche”

La lune blanche
Luit dans les bois;
De chaque branche
Part une voix
Sous la ramée…

Banville’s “La Lune blanche” exemplifies his ability to weave together the repetition of refrains with evocative imagery, creating a sense of mystical enchantment that is characteristic of his poetry.

The Villanelle in English Literature

The villanelle eventually found its way into English literature, where poets embraced its formal challenges and poetic possibilities. While the form initially gained traction through translations and adaptations of French and Italian examples, English poets soon began to experiment with the villanelle form in their own unique ways.

Edmund Gosse: Early English Advocate of the Villanelle

Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), an English poet, critic, and biographer, played a pivotal role in introducing the villanelle form to English-speaking audiences during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gosse’s translations of French villanelles and his own original compositions helped popularize the form among English poets.

Gosse’s Villanelles: Adaptation and Innovation

Gosse’s villanelles often explored themes of love, nature, and the mysteries of existence with a lyrical intensity and formal precision. His adherence to the traditional structure of the villanelle while adapting it to English poetic sensibilities showcased his versatility as a poet and translator.

Example: Edmund Gosse’s Villanelle “Inn of Earth”

Under the surge of joy
Lift me, O white one, lift me, so I may see
The great wide rooms where the daylight loves to be!

So shall I join you in your lonely mirth,
So shall I share the pride of all you give,
– Pride in the strength and splendour of the earth.

Gosse’s “Inn of Earth” demonstrates his mastery of the villanelle form, combining rhythmic cadence with thematic depth to evoke a sense of wonder and contemplation.

The Villanelle in Modern and Contemporary Poetry

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the villanelle continued to evolve as poets from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds embraced its challenges and possibilities. Modern and contemporary poets have explored the form’s potential for innovation while maintaining its essential characteristics of repetition and rhyme.

Sylvia Plath: Contemporary Revitalization of the Villanelle

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), an American poet and novelist, is renowned for her innovative use of traditional poetic forms, including the villanelle. Plath’s villanelles often delve into themes of identity, mental illness, and the struggle for autonomy with a raw emotional intensity that resonates with contemporary readers.

Plath’s Villanelles: Experimental and Expressive

Plath’s villanelles, such as “Mad Girl’s Love Song” and “The Courage of Shutting-Up,” showcase her ability to blend formal structure with confessional lyricism. Her use of repetition and refrains heightens the emotional tension and thematic complexity of her poetry.

Example: Sylvia Plath’s Villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song”

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 stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” exemplifies her mastery of the villanelle form, using repetition to convey a sense of fractured reality and emotional turmoil.

Contemporary Villanelles: Global Perspectives and Innovations

In the 21st century, poets from diverse cultural backgrounds continue to explore the villanelle form, infusing it with new themes, voices, and stylistic innovations. Globalization and digital communication have facilitated the exchange of poetic forms and ideas, leading to a resurgence of interest in traditional verse forms like the villanelle.

Conclusion: The Legacy of the Villanelle

The villanelle form, with its structured repetition and thematic resonance, has left an indelible mark on the landscape of poetry. From its humble origins in medieval Italy to its flourishing in French literature and beyond, the villanelle has inspired poets to explore themes of love, loss, memory, and identity with formal rigor and emotional depth.

Throughout its history, key figures such as Jean Passerat, Théodore de Banville, Edmund Gosse, and Sylvia Plath have shaped and reshaped the villanelle form, each contributing to its evolution and enduring appeal. As poets continue to experiment with the villanelle in contemporary contexts, the form remains a testament to the enduring power of poetic structure and lyrical innovation.

Whether exploring the mysteries of existence, celebrating the beauty of nature, or confronting the complexities of human emotion, the villanelle continues to offer poets a timeless and versatile framework for creative expression. As such, its legacy as a poetic form of enduring beauty and formal challenge is assured for generations to come.

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