The name of this poetic form comes from the word “villain” for its villainously twisted form. Just kidding—sort of. It is villainously twisted, but the villanelle really comes from the Italian villanelle, referring to a rustic song or dance.
Villanelles have five tercets (three-line stanzas) and one quatrain (a four-line stanza), for a grand total of nineteen lines in all. The rhyme scheme of the tercets is ABA, where the letter refers to the end rhyme of each line, while the quatrain is ABAA.
That’s not to say that the first and third lines of every tercet have the exact same end rhyme. That is the case for this poem in tercets 1 and 2 (lines 1, 3, 4, and 6 all end with a long O rhyme), but the A rhyme changes in the following tercets. Line 7, for example, ends with a shift in rhyme: “you,” which does have an O in the word, though it has a long U sound to it. We get more of this eye rhyme in lines and 10 and 12 with “how” and “slow.”
So, while the rhyme is generally predictable, it does evolve and shift as the poem develops. That seems fitting in a poem where the speaker is describing an awakening. Would you expect someone who is learning where he has to go in life not to change? The change in rhyme seems to mirror that development.
What also changes, and stays the same, are the poem’s refrains. Two lines, lines 1 and 3, are Refrain 1 and Refrain 2, respectively. They get repeated over and over, though again sometimes with variation. In this poem Refrain 1 is “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” And Refrain 2 is “I learn by going where I have to go.”
And even when these refrains are repeated word for word, they’re read differently given their context (the lines that surround them). (For more on how their meaning evolves, check out our line summaries.) Even more, Roethke also uses his own “poetic license” to change up his refrain in line 15: “And, lovely, learn by going where to go.” Just in case you wondered if this was a good thing or not, he inserts “lovely” (which offers a kind of echo of “lively” in the air above this line). Also by removing “have to,” maybe he’s showing us that we aren’t so shackled by fate (or the form).
A form like this has a natural music, as the refrains weave in and out. The effect is like a spiral, circling, but also going forward (where it has to go). Dare we say it’s like ”a winding stair”? Along with this evolution, there’s a recollection of the path that brought you there. But, despite the repetition, the subtle changes to rhymes and refrains tell us that our speaker is moving ever forward.
In terms of meter, each line is written in strongly-pronounced iambic pentameter. An iamb is a two-syllable pair in which the second syllable gets the emphasis (say “allow” out loud and you’ll hear a real live iamb in action). It sounds like da-DUM. Check out what five of them put together (iambic pentameter) sounds like here:
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair; (11)
The emphasis of the beat comes from all the one- and two-syllable words. They almost fall like footsteps, echoing the speaker’s trek forward (“going where I have to go”), even as the evolving rhyme and refrains reflect his growing awareness as he makes his journey.