Our most recent spotlight, the ghazal, is not the only poetic form to have originated in a far-away country: The villanelle is a form that was first created by a French poet in the early 17th century, and the name itself is derived from the Italian word “villanella.” So what has allowed this poetic form to stand the test of time and continue to be popular amongst poets today? Read on to find out!
The word “villanelle” is meant to evoke a sense of the pastoral. In Latin, “villanus” refers to someone who works on a farm, and the Italian word “villanella” is a term used to describe a rustic song/dance. The first villanelles were free-formed ballads that often had themes of the countryside, nature, and the “simple life.” They have evolved since them, both in subject matter and in the nature of their defining characteristics, but these first poets designed the blueprint for what was the become the official form of the villanelle.
What Are the “Rules” of a Villanelle?
Today’s villanelle is a poem with nineteen total lines. The first fifteen of these lines are broken up into tercets (three-line units), and the poem is completed by a four-line quatrain. Repetition is a very important component of a villanelle, which is partially due to its origins in the musical tradition of ballad. As such, there are always two repeating rhymes in a villanelle, giving it an ABA ABA rhyme scheme. There are also two regrains in a villanelle: the first line of the first tercet becomes the last line of the second and fourth tercets, and the third line of the first tercet becomes the last line of both the third and fifth tercets. This creates a rhythmic flow even though the villanelle itself does not have to adhere to any specific meter.
Because of their repetitive nature, villanelles are well-suited to themes such as obsession or the cyclical nature of things. Within the restrictions of the form, you can explore these broader ideas in a more concrete way. Take a stab at writing your own villanelle on a subject you find yourself “obsessed” with. If you like what you write, consider submitting it to our poetry contest and show your work to the world!