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The Villanelle

The villanelle is considered by some to be the most difficult of poetic forms. And yet, in issue 846 we have two villanelles: Colleen Halupa’s “Daytrip” and Michael Wooff’s “Et In Arcadia Ego.”

A villanelle has 19 lines: five tercets and a concluding quatrain. It has only one rhyme, which is repeated in the first and third lines of every stanza. In “Daytrip,” the rhyming syllable is /ot/; in “Arcadia,” the rhyme or assonance is made with /e:/. “Arcadia” adds an optional rhyme with /um/ in the second line of each stanza. “Soon,” in the fifth tercet, is an assonance, because it keeps the vowel /u/ but has the final consonant /n/.

The name “villanelle” descends from the Latin villanus, i.e. a ‘farmhand’ on a villa, namely a plantation. Originally, then, “villanelle” meant simply a workers’ song or pastoral poem. The addition of a refrain made it a song that could accompany a dance.

The villanelle acquired its fixed form with a poem by Jean Passerat, in 1606, although others have contributed to the history of the form’s standardization. Since then, the villanelle has become more popular in English than in French, especially since the late 19th century. The form may be better suited to English, where end-rhyme is harder to find than in French. Thus, French favors other forms, such as sonnets and ballads.

The repetition in the modern villanelle typically leads the poem to describe an obsession and tell a story building to a conclusion. A famous example of the modern villanelle: Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

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