Die Heuning Pot Literature Guide
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Literature Glossary

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Villanelle

Definition:

The meanest of the poetic forms, the villanelle comes to us from France, which is fitting, given that all great villains hail from France. Or maybe only this guy.

Okay, in all honesty, villanelles aren't mean at all. They're actually kind of awesome, if a bit fussy. At the most basic level, villanelles have nineteen lines and are made up of five three-line stanzas and one quatrain.

Here's where things get fussy.

  • The first and third lines of the first stanza alternate as the third line of each successive stanza. 
  • The first and third lines have to rhyme
  • The first line of each of the three-line stanzas will rhyme with its fellows, and the second line will, too. 
  • Finally, the repeated first and third lines form a couplet at the very end of the poem.

We know. It's a lot. So let's break it down even further, using our handy dandy rhyme scheme skills:

If the first line is represented as A1, then the third line should be A, too. But the third line doesn't match the first line perfectly; they only rhyme. The rest of the line is totally different, so we'll call that A2. Both of these lines get capital letters because they're repeated in their entirety throughout the poem. They're refrains.

But what about those other lines—the ones that don't get repeated? Well we know that the first line of each three-line stanza rhymes with the first and third lines, so we'll call that one a. And the second line of each of those stanzas rhymes with… all the other second lines of the three line stanzas, so we'll call that one b.

Where are we going with all this? To the rhyme scheme of a villanelle, of course:

A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2

Phew.

Because villanelles are so stinkin' repetitive, they don't exactly lend themselves to storytelling or chattiness. Think of them more like meditations, as if the speaker just can't get his subject matter off his mind, and feels compelled to repeat himself while rocking back and forth holding his blankie and sucking his thumb. Or something.

And as we said before, we have the French to thank for the form. The word itself, though, comes from the Latin villanus, which means rustic or peasant (not Bad Guy). And that makes sense because many early villanelles were just that; they dealt with pastoral, rural themes.

You're tired of hearing Shmoop jaw about it, so we'll go ahead and point you toward some of our favorite villanelles, so you can see the French form at its finest. Keep in mind, though, as you read, that poets like to shake things up. So these villanelles might not follow the form exactly. But you'll catch their drifts:

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