Saturday, 10 March 2018

La Belle Villanelle

Every so often, just to keep us on our poetic toes (so to speak), we like to blog about a specific verse form. It's a while since we did so - the ballad was the most recent, if I recall correctly. This week, then, we're giving a turn in the Dead Good spotlight to something called the villanelle.

You know you're going to get a bit of a back story from me, and here it is. This particular form of verse originated as a rustic peasant song with stylized calls and refrains (villanella) in medieval Italy. It was part of the continental oral tradition and its themes were routinely pastoral.

In its fixed and written form it dates back to France at the beginning of the 17th century when one Jean Passerat composed 'Villanelle - J'ay perdu ma Tourterelle' ...I've discarded my Turtle dove in the most careless fashion. Sorry, I couldn't resist messing around with the translation :-)

Thereafter, all villanelles followed the template of Passerat's verse: a 19 line poem consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, in which line 1 (the first refrain) repeats at lines 6, 12 and 18; line 3 (the second refrain) repeats at lines 9, 15 and 19; lines 2, 5, 8, 11, 14, and 17 share an end rhyme; and lines 4, 7, 10, 13 and 16 share another end rhyme.

Ah, the beautiful, tumbling symmetry of it - but it's a beggar of a task to compose one - and as Adele stated in her blog on this theme a couple of days ago, it's not just about rising to the technical and metrical challenge of the form; the intent is to use the structure creatively to reinforce the power of what the poet is writing about.

Although la belle villanelle as a formal composition originated in France, the majority of villanelles have in fact been written in English. Edmund Gosse first popularised it in late Victorian England and such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, William Empson, Dylan Thomas, W.H Auden and Sylvia Plath then picked up on it in succeeding decades.

More recently, the new formalists revived it and Elizabeth Bishop and Wendy Cope have written a series of well-received villanelles. This week it has been the turn of the Dead Good Poets.

The Dead Good Blog has hosted two excellent and powerful villanelles already this week (and a Kathanelle). Frankly, I think my own effort, freshly wrestled to the page (with a wry pun and a suitably pastoral metaphor), lacks the compelling power of those earlier poems - not that it's a mere contractual obligation - but I'll leave you to be the judge of that. Let me know what you think...

Helping Wendy Cope
In your mind, you are still twenty-nine,
a fledgling talent eager for the game,
a fruitful harvest budding on your vine,

though when I throw you out a line
you can't recall the poem's name;
in your mind, you are still twenty-nine.

Your early work, though anodyne,
suggested you'd learn how to frame
the fruitful harvest swelling on your vine.

We pruned your words. I helped you to define
the style to which your fame lays claim;
though in your mind, you are still twenty-nine

and have no recollection of the heady wine
we served, or the success that came
of fruitful harvest ripening on your vine.

My long-time friend, I've read the warning signs:
the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Forever in your mind, you will stay twenty-nine,
a random harvest budding on your vine.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week, S ;-)


Lady Curt said...

A nice rendition and informative..

Matt West said...

So that's how it's done! Never heard of it - ha ha. Happy Sundays.

Anonymous said...

Sure looks complicated, compadre. Well wrestled!

Anonymous said...

Nice one Steve.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve. I am now considerably wiser and will attempt a villanelle myself. I thought yours was very good, by the way.

Anonymous said...

What does Wendy think of it? ;-@