Exploring the Villanelle

Exploring the Villanelle

France has a rich history of poetry innovation.  The villanelle is just one of the many forms that developed as an imitation of a French model.  The form entered into English-language poetry during the 1800’s.

A villanelle appears to be a fairly simple rhyming form but it is actually extremely difficult to write because the first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated throughout the poem as a sort of refrain.  So not only do they rhyme each other but they will also rhyme other lines in the poem and need to be repeated, often without any alteration, without becoming boring.

A villanelle is normally 19 lines long, consisting of five tercets (three lined stanzas) and one concluding quatrain.

Below is a breakdown of how the form looks.  I borrowed this information from the Wikipedia article because it is the simplest way to show how the line set up and rhymes work.  As you can see, even this simple illustration can still be quite difficult to understand, and even more difficult to execute with any skill.

Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 2 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 4 (a)
Line 5 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 7 (a)
Line 8 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 10 (a)
Line 11 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 13 (a)
Line 14 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 16 (a)
Line 17 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Refrain 2 (A2)

I have attempted, over the years to write quite a few villanelles but I have never had one published.  I am including a pop culture one that I completed earlier this year mainly to give you a concrete example of how the rhyming works.

Marvin the Martian’s Villanelle

Marvin the Martian
wanted to destroy
the Earth. He wanted to win

with his Illudium
PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator.
Marvin the Martian

of a single mind
never tried to enjoy
the Earth. He wanted to win.

And for that he was like men,
like a man fiddling with his big toy.
Marvin the Martian,

small and thin,
no bigger than a boy.
The Earth. He wanted to win.

Win? That Bunny wouldn’t let him.
Marvin was constantly foiled.
Marvin, the Martian,
The Earth. He wanted to win.

For more modern and contemporary examples you can read poems such as:

  • One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
  • There were several examples  n the 2008 issue of Margie if you can obtain a copy with titles such as: Satchel Paige Villanelle by Chris Mattingly and Cirrhosis by Katy Miller
  • This article by Albert Riosalso contains several examples.
  • Week 8 of Project Verse was to write a Villanelle.
  • Jillian Weise has a villanelle titled “The Surgeon” in her collection The Amputee’s Guide to Sex
  • Paul Mullineaux from Poetry Daily with Men Knitting
  • Video of a poem by Dash Poet (aka Mark Shephard), view below or click here to read with text of the poem in the side bar 

Additional source material:

Wikipedia on Villanelles

Can you think of other examples? We’d love to hear from you.

Jessie Carty is the Editor of Shape of a Box, YouTube’s First Literary Magazine. Her poems have appeared in publications such as MARGIE, Iodine Poetry Journal and The Northville Review. Her non-fiction works have appeared in publications such as The Main Street Rag and TheExaminer.com. She received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her first chapbook “At the A & P Meridiem” was released by Puddinghouse Publications in 2009. She can find her lurking on the web, but mostly at her BLOG

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