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Edmund Gosse and the Stubborn Villanelle Blunder

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 48, Number 2, Summer 2010
pp. 243-266 | 10.1353/vp.0.0104

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Contemporary American poets do not care for Victorian poetry. For evidence of this assertion we might look at the November/December 2007 issue of The American Poetry Review: What trace of the Victorian, if any, do we see? Paul Muldoon, an Irish transplant, vouchsafes an interview about Byron (Romantic, not Victorian, but nineteenth-century at least.)1 A poem by Stefi Weisburd titled “Descent of Man” would have been impossible without Lyell and Darwin (not poetry, but Victorian); it mentions neither those Victorian scientists nor the pregnant contemporary phrase “intelligent design,” but their influence is obvious: “Vestigial footprints, of human, of beast / score the earth like musical notes, / and what a beautiful score it is, only / the believers are too hoarse to sing.”2 Half of almost every page is blocked off for advertisements for new collections, editions, works of criticism, and creative writing programs, and these include a notice for a “Bilingual 50th Anniversary Edition” of C. F. Macintyre’s French Symbolist Poetry and an epigraph by Flaubert gracing the advertisement for the James A. Michener Center for Writers MFA in Writing (France, not Britain). The many prizes are named after modernists: the 2007 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize, The Robinson Jeffers Tor House 2008 Prize for Poetry, the W. B. Yeats Society of New York Poetry Prize, the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry. Ira Sadoff ’s “History Matters: A Minority Report” mentions James Wright, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, and Emily Dickinson. Reginald Gibbons’s essay “On Apophatic Poetics” mentions Catullus, Aquinas, Horace, Shakespeare, Marvell, Donne, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Andrei Voznesensky, and Emily Dickinson—the last apparently a blow for the nineteenth century, but American.

Yet Victorian Aestheticism has left accidental, unremarked, but decided traces on the landscape of contemporary American poetry in the “French forms,” especially the villanelle, which Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Reading and Writing Metrical Verse defines as follows:

A poem of nineteen lines, set out in five tercets and a final quatrain. The poem works on only two rhymes; the first line and the third line of the initial stanza are repeated, exactly or almost exactly, throughout the rest of the stanzas, as follows: a ,b, a a ,b, a a ,b, a a ,b, a a ,b, a a ,b, a ,a.3

The villanelles and triolets and rondeaux and ballades beloved of the Aesthetes were endangered for most of the twentieth century, but the villanelle in particular is now a common animal in the biome of contemporary American poetry. Its nineteen lines, its five tercets and single quatrain, its two rhymes and two alternating refrains habitually appear in anthologies and little magazines and MFA theses and Collected Works. Although our sample issue of The American Poetry Review does not itself house an example, the catalogs of names that appear in every advertisement of a poetry program or event will inevitably include burnished contemporary American poets who have written villanelles. The full-page advertisement for the 2008 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference and Bookfair has the wherewithal to print pictures, not just names, of the enticing authors who will be there: excluding the prose writers, the list consists of Sonia Sanchez, James Tate, Yusef Komunyakaa, Louise Glück, Robert Pinsky, Mark Strand, and Natasha Trethewey. Mark Strand’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 collection Blizzard of One included the double villanelle “Two de Chiricos for Harry Ford,” and in 2000 Strand co-edited The Making of a Poem: A Northon Anthology of Poetic Forms, which began with a long entry on the villanelle. Natasha Trethewey also won the Pulitzer for her 2006 Native Guard, which includes the altered villanelle “Myth.”4

The other poets attending the 2008 AWP conference might eschew the writing of a villanelle, but they do not ignore it. Komunyakaa’s 2001 poem “When Men Can’t Trust Hands with Wood” avers that “Under villanelles of pleated dresses / women forget flesh”5 ; clearly, for Komunyakaa, the villanelle is slight, light, of the surface, surfacey, and the line is a tiny reprimand to other poets who write such things. Yet such other non-slight poets...