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Analysis

Villanelle; Iambic Pentameter…ish.

Oh boy. Where to begin? The villanelle is a complicated verse form, to say the least. It’s actually quite famous for its convoluted structure, and the resulting difficulties it can present to writers. The most amazing thing about this poem’s form is the way in which Bishop doesn’t allow the restrictions of the villanelle to interrupt her seemingly effortless, conversational flow.

So what is a villanelle, anyway? Let’s start with the basics: the villanelle has nineteen lines, divided up into six stanzas. The first five have three lines and last stanza has four.

The form follows a very specific rhyme scheme. The poem utilizes two rhymes – that is to say, everything either rhymes with [a] or [b] (in Bishop’s poem, all the lines rhyme with either "master" or "intent").

To further complicate things, there are two refrains, which are lines that are repeated several times. Here, Bishop sticks consistently to one refrain, "the art of losing isn’t hard to master," which she only slightly modifies at the end: "the art of losing’s not too hard to master." Theoretically, the villanelle should have a second line like this, that’s repeated throughout the poem. Bishop, however, takes some liberties here, and instead of actually repeating lines verbatim, her second so-called refrain always ends in the word "disaster" (lines 3, 9, 15, and 19).

Still with us? We hope so. Now, let’s take a look at the roadmap of the form, with some key cues from the Bishop poem:

Triplet 1:
Line 1 – refrain 1 (rhyme a, "master")
Line 2 (rhyme b, "intent")
Line 3 – refrain 2 (rhyme a, "disaster")

Triplet 2:
Line 4 (rhyme a, "fluster")
Line 5 (rhyme b, "spent")
Line 6 – refrain 1 ("master")

Triplet 3:
Line 7 (rhyme a, "faster")
Line 8 (rhyme b, "meant")
Line 9 – refrain 2 ("disaster")

Triplet 4:
Line 10 (rhyme a, "last, or")
Line 11 (rhyme b, "went")
Line 12 – refrain 1 ("master")

Triplet 5:
Line 13 (rhyme a, "vaster")
Line 14 (rhyme b, "continent")
Line 15 – refrain 2 ("disaster")

Quatrain:
Line 16 (rhyme a, "gesture")
Line 17 (rhyme b, "evident")
Line 18 – refrain 1 ("master")
Line 19 – refrain 2 ("disaster")

Whew! Got it? Good. Now, on to meter – don’t worry, it’s a lot easier. The villanelle doesn’t actually have an official meter. Many famous villanelles are written in iambic pentameter (a ten-syllable line in which every other syllable is stressed). Bishop’s loosely stays around this meter, and many of her lines have the distinctive da-dum da-dum da-dum sound of iambic pentameter, but she allows her lines to have some flexibility, keeping them at either ten or eleven syllables each.

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