The Villanelle

August 13, 2017

I’ve posted before about poetic forms. They’re a great exercise for writers and a breeding ground for ideas. They’re fun too. One form is the villanelle. With its repeated use of two lines, it employs the power of repetition in five three-line stanzas and a final four-line stanza. Confused already? Here’s an example:


Thank God for David, Saint George and Ian,

Who to their Universal Credit stand

Harrow-straight against the Europeans.


Those pesky Poles and Romanians

Who take our hard won Jerusalem.

Thank God for David, Saint George and Ian’s


Cucumber sandwich making St Trinians.

That heehawing, guffawing, horsey band,

Harrow-straight against the Europeans.


Not for them the washy wish to be in

Frenchy’s pocket, or Hunny Merkel’s hand.

Thank God for David, Saint George and Ian


Whose Cobra knights and bold plebeians

Protect surburban Middle England.

Harrow-straight against the Europeans.


For them no more EU shenanigans,

No more namby-pamby Corbynland.

Thank God for David, Saint George and Ian,

Harrow-straight against the European.


Forget the contents, it was written over a pint (or two) well before Brexit, look at the structure. The repeated two lines are ‘Thank God for David, Saint George and Ian’ and ‘Harrow-straight against the Europeans’ The first refrain starts the poem, then repeats in the sixth, twelfth and eighteenth line. The second refrain, ‘Harrow-straight against the European’ first appear in the third line and then in the ninth, fifteenth and final line. That’s the rule. They go in those lines and nowhere else.


The next rule is rhyme pattern. It’s aba aba aba aba aba abaa. You can choose your own rhythm (mine has five beats—ten syllables—per line) but the rhyme pattern is set.


The conundrum with villanelles is thinking up two lines (refrains) that make sense following each other at the end, yet also make sense on the other lines where they don’t follow on. As the final lines of any poem should have punch, my advice is work backwards, i.e. choose two lines that work as a finale before fitting them in the other places. It’s also useful to lay out those two refrains where they need to appear before trying to add the other lines. Like so:


                  1.      Three cheers for Boris, Gove and May


                  3.      Prodding us along the Brexit gangway




                  6.      Cavalier are Boris, Gove and May




                  9.       Prodding us along the Brexit gangway




                 12.      I fear that Boris, Gove and May




                 15.      Prodding us along the Brexit gangway




                 18.      Three tears for Boris, Gove and May

                 19.      Prodding us along the Brexit gangway


Why choose May? Content and form: the simple rhyming pattern is suited to comedy, politicians are easy to satirise and, most importantly, lots of words rhyme with ‘May’ (as they do with ‘ian’ in the first example). If I’d finished the line with Boris or Gove I’d be struggling for rhymes. Corbyn would be okay and maybe that ‘in’ sound could be the end B line rhyme, but you get the point: choose an end word that gives you plenty of rhyme options.


Once you get the hang of it you can subvert it a little, as I've done on the second refrain. But subversion only works if you respect form and purpose, and I'll explain what I mean by that in a future post. For now, put that crossword down, douse your opium pipe, say no to that sex god or goddess and have some real fun!



Book review/recommendation: A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz


It’s a bizarre father and son relationship story set mostly in Australia. With his father, Martin, dead, Jasper reflects on his eccentric upbringing by a man who saw the world differently. Point of view neatly switches between the two of them (clever contrivances allow that to happen) so we experienced Martin’s exasperation at a crazy world and Jasper’s exasperation with his father. It’s not funny, it’s very funny. If you want to see the absurdities of life in sharp focus, this is for you. I loved it.


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