Villanelle Examples

, Staff Writer
Updated March 27, 2020
Villanelle Examples
    Elderly man watching sunset
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Different poetic styles have several structures. A villanelle is a structured form of poetry that uses tercets, quatrains and refrains to create powerful meaning in poetry. Explore the structure, purpose and examples of a villanelle then try writing one of your own using our template as a starting point.

What Is the Structure of Villanelles?

Rhyme and structure are abound in a villanelle poem. At first look, it might seem a bit scary with all the rhyme going on in this 19-line poem. But, when you break it down, it isn't as bad as you might think.

First, you need to break down the structure. A villanelle:

All this rhyming might sound difficult, but in truth you only have to come up with two lines for each stanza after your first stanza. The final line in your second and fourth stanzas will be your first refrain, which matches up to the first line of the first stanza. The final line in your first stanza acts as your second refrain, which is repeated as the final line in your third and fifth stanzas.


Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Looking at an example can make this a lot easier. In "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas, you can see this repeating structure.

Do not go gentle into that good night, (refrain 1)

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (refrain 2)

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night. (refrain 1)

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (refrain 2)

This structure is followed through until the ending, which breaks from the tercet into a quatrain with an ABCC rhyme scheme. You still only need two original lines, though, since the refrains will be repeated as the last two lines. This really ends the poem with a bang:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night. (refrain 1)

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (refrain 2)


Template for a Villanelle

Using a template can help you to understand the structure of a villanelle and its rhyme scheme. Download and print this PDF to help you break down examples or even write a villanelle poem of your own.

Template villanelle

Click to View & Download

Examples of Villanelle Poems

While "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is probably one of the most famous examples of a villanelle, several poets new and old have made this form their own.

Mad Girl's Love Song by Sylvia Plath

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;

I lift my lids and all is born again.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,

And arbitrary blackness gallops in:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed

And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Not only do you see the set ABA rhyme scheme and the standard form of a villanelle, but you can feel the despair of the girl and her descent into depression in Plath's poem. The refrains give you a clear understanding of her mental state and that feeling builds until the end of the poem when you can really feel the magnitude of her despair.


The Waking by Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?

God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,

And learn by going where I have to go.

"The Waking" illustrates how diverse a villanelle can be through the use of symbolism. In his poem, Roethke uses waking and dreaming to symbolize life and death. Using the tone and repetitive style of the villanelle, readers can see the connection of sleep to death and the unknown. There is also a sense of relief that Roethke inserts in accepting the fact that death comes to all.


The House on the Hill by Edwin Robinson

They are all gone away,

The House is shut and still,

There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray

The winds blow bleak and shrill:

They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day

To speak them good or ill:

There is nothing more to say.

One of the first great examples of a villanelle, "The House on the Hill" uses rhyme and structure to represent the passing of time and the writer's remorse of the past. The refrains of "They are all gone away" and "There is nothing more to say" set the dark undertone of the broken past and the impending end of the writer.

Function of a Villanelle

It might seem strange, but villanelle poems didn't start with such a rigid form. They were actually peasant dance songs that morphed into a structured piece of literary work.

However, the dance-song beginnings can still be seen in the work through the introduction, development and conclusion. The refrains work to build the intensity of the piece through the introduction and development. For example, in "Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night," the writer is imploring the reader to fight the "dying of the light" and to hold onto hope.

This theme is pushed home through the conclusion when we are told to "not go gentle" and to "rage against the dying of the light." The repetition builds power in the poem, making it impactful and easy to memorize. You might not remember anything else, but the message to keep fighting is clear.


Meter and Rhyme in Villanelle Poetry

Rhyme is an important part of a villanelle. You can't actually have a true villanelle poem without the ABA rhyme scheme.

Meter in a villanelle is more variable. While many early villanelle works, like the Dylan Thomas poem, use iambic pentameter to add to the mood and tone, current works might not. This allows poets to play a bit with the length of their lines and create an original feel to their work.

Villanelle Structured Fun

Villanelle is a structured poetic genre that can be powerful through the use of repetition. Explore creating your own villanelle poem and see how fun structure can be.

And, when you're ready for more structured poems, take a look at these sonnet examples. Do you know the difference between Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets?