Poetry Form - The Villanelle

The Villanelle Verse Form
by Ariadne Unst

* History. * Form. * Your Composition. * References. * Example.

Do you have a feeling or idea that haunts you? Then the Villanelle may be the form you need.

[If you need a similar and shorter form, check out the Triolet.]

Villanelle is a French word, derived from the original word in Italian, villanella. Villanella is believed derived from the Latin villano (farmhand), which is in turn derived from the Latin villa (farm).


Historically, the Italian villanella was a rustic dance, or the music for such a dance. Sometimes it was a rustic Italian part song (round song) that was popular in the sixteenth century.

The Villanelle tradition as a poem appeared in France in the sixteenth century. A fragment by Jean Passerat, one of the earliest French poets to use the form, is in The Making of a Poem.

In the nineteenth century, English poets including Oscar Wilde wrote villanelle.

More recently, many American and British poets (including Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas) have written Villanelles. Usually they vary the content of the repeated lines, to soften the strict repetition of the traditional form.


In a traditional Villanelle:

Your Composition.

The repetition in a Villanelle made this form popular with audiences. The repetition allowed the listener to catch the poem more clearly at first hearing or first reading.

A writer of a Villanelle can use the repetition to delve more deeply into her material. Each stanza can revise, amplify, and show more facets of what the poet feels.

Here are some steps to take in creating your Villanelle:

  1. Draft a rhyming couplet with images that express your feeling or idea.

  2. Draft a dozen or more rhyming couplets that each help you express the heart of your concern.

  3. Pick the couplet that combines originality and expressiveness with some flexibility in the way those lines could be used in combination with others, and can be modified slightly upon repetition. Whether you work by hand or on your computer, place a copy of each line at every place that it (or its variant) will appear in your Villanelle. Be sure to follow the above guidelines for form. You will then have written 8 lines - almost half of the whole poem!

  4. Now work on the rest of the Villanelle.

  5. Use enjambment sometimes, so that your repeated lines are less obvious. Make the repeated lines an organic part of your poem, not just something pasted in.

  6. Feel free to modify the lines that you set up for your original couplet. Then, repeat this modification throughout the poem (if you are following the form of strict repetition), or use the modifications to reflect something (such as a progression of internal emotions).

  7. As with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not "drive" your poem. If the rhyme scheme and form begin to feel forced, then the poem's content must be asserted.

A Last Word.

Just because you start with the intention of writing a Villanelle, you do not have to keep your poem in that form if it does not work for you. Your attempt to write a formal poem may help you find words that you would not have found otherwise. And you may decide that you choose to end up with a poem in a different form, perhaps even a prose poem.


Buy Strand
The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland

Other Books of Poetry Form.

   CRETE - 1941 AND 1971

by J. Zimmerman.

At the village entrance, the glass casket, full
of human bones, meets the traveler to Crete.
The moon gleams like a skull upon each skull.

Fishermen (fathers, husbands, or sons of these sorrowful
fragments) ferried to ships the Allies in retreat.
At the village entrance, the glass casket, full

of ghosts of women and children torn fearful
from cottages, remembers the Nazi military elite.
The moon gleams like a skull upon each skull,

upon slim bones from arms that once could lull
babies, and upon bones from babies feet.
At the village entrance, the glass casket, full

of thighbones, commemorates those too slow to haul
themselves into the hills. In the evening heat,
the moon gleams like a skull upon each skull.

Three decades later, German sailors, dull
to history, laugh together jostling on a seat
at the village entrance - the glass casket. Full
the moon gleams like a skull upon each skull.

[Thanks for visiting.]