An Introduction to the Song-Like Villanelle Form of Poetry

Oscar Wilde in 1882
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A classic form of poetry, the villanelle has a strict form of 19 lines within five triplets and a repeating refrain. These poems are very song-like and are fun to both read and write once you know the rules behind them.


The word villanelle comes from the Italian villano (meaning “peasant”). A villanelle was originally a dance song that Renaissance troubadours would play. They often had a pastoral or rustic theme and no particular form.

The modern form, with its alternating refrain lines, took shape after Jean Passerat’s famous 16th-century villanelle, “J’ai perdu ma tourtourelle” (“I Have Lost My Turtle Dove”). Passerat’s poem is the only known example of the villanelle form before it was taken up and brought into English in the late 19th-century.

In 1877, Edmund Gosse spelled out the strict 19-line shape of the form in an article for the Cornhill Magazine, “A Plea For Certain Exotic Forms of Verse.” A year later Austin Dobson published a similar essay, “A Note on Some Foreign Forms of Verse,” in W. Davenport Adams’ Latter-Day Lyrics. Both men wrote villanelles, including:

  • Gosse's "Wouldst Thou Not be Content To Die"
  • Dobson's "When I Saw You Last, Rose." 

It was not until the 20th-century that the villanelle truly flowered in English poetry, with Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” published at mid-century, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” in the 1970’s, and many more fine villanelles written by the New Formalists in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Form of the Villanelle

The villanelle’s 19 lines form five triplets and a quatrain, using only two rhymes throughout the whole form.

  • The entire first line is repeated as lines 6, 12 and 18.
  • The third line is repeated as lines 9, 15 and 19.

This means that the lines which frame the first triplet weave through the poem like refrains in a traditional song. Together, they form the end of the concluding stanza.

With these repeating lines represented as A1 and A2 (because they rhyme together), the entire scheme is:

  • A1
  • b
  • A2 a
  • b
  • A1 (refrain) a
  • b
  • A2 (refrain) a
  • b
  • A1 (refrain) a
  • b
  • A2 (refrain) a
  • b
  • A1 (refrain)
  • A2 (refrain)

Examples of Villanelles

Now that you know the form a villanelle follows, let's look at an example.

Theocritus, A Villanelle” by Oscar Wilde was written in 1881 and is a perfect illustration of the villanelle style of poetry. You can almost hear the song as you read it.

O Singer of Persephone!
In the dim meadows desolate
Dost thou remember Sicily?
Still through the ivy flits the bee
Where Amaryllis lies in state;
O Singer of Persephone!
Simætha calls on Hecate
And hears the wild dogs at the gate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?
Still by the light and laughing sea
Poor Polypheme bemoans his fate:
O Singer of Persephone!
And still in boyish rivalry
Young Daphnis challenges his mate:
Dost thou remember Sicily?
Slim Lacon keeps a goat for thee,
For thee the jocund shepherds wait,
O Singer of Persephone!
Dost thou remember Sicily?

As you explore villanelles, look at these poems as well:

  • Villanelle of Change” by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1891)
  • The House on the Hill” by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1894)
  • Pan: a Double Villanelle” by Oscar Wilde (1913)
  • Stephen Daedalus’ “Villanelle of the Temptress” by James Joyce (from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1915)
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Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "An Introduction to the Song-Like Villanelle Form of Poetry." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2023, April 5). An Introduction to the Song-Like Villanelle Form of Poetry. Retrieved from Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "An Introduction to the Song-Like Villanelle Form of Poetry." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).