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The Myth of the Fixed-Form Villanelle
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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 64.4 (2003) 427-443

The villanelle, like the sonnet and the sestina, is one of the "fixed poetic forms," whose rhyme schemes and metrical patterns are governed by strict conventions. For the villanelle they prescribe five three-line stanzas followed by one four-line stanza in the scheme A 1 bA 2 abA 1 abA 2 abA 1 abA 2 abA 1 A 2. The first and third lines, A 1 and A 2, are "refrain" lines that must be repeated three times and positioned precisely as shown. All of the a / A 1/ A 2 lines rhyme with each other, as do all of the b lines.

Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" is probably the villanelle most familiar to English-speaking readers, and it is reprinted below to place lovely flesh on the bare bones of abstraction:

Do not go gentle into that good night, A 1
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; b
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. A 2
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, a
Because their words had forked no lightning they b
Do not go gentle into that good night. A 1
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright a
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, b
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. A 2
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, a
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, b
Do not go gentle into that good night. A 1
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight a
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, b
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. A 2
And you, my father, there on the sad height, a
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. b
Do not go gentle into that good night. A 1
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. A 2

The poetic villanelle originated in the Italian musical villanella , an early-sixteenth-century genre whose courtly composers imitated peasant songs of the oral tradition. Like the villanella , the earliest villanelles employed refrains and "rustic" subject matter. However, as Donna G. Cardamone establishes by surveying 188 musical villanesche lyrics published between 1537 and 1559, the villanella had no fixed poetic form; furthermore, none of the dozens of rhyme schemes she catalogs bears even a slight resemblance to the present-day form of the villanelle.

How, then, did the poetic form of the villanelle come to be "fixed"? Literary reference sources generally agree that the A 1 bA 2 abA 1 abA 2 abA 1 abA 2 abA 1 A 2 form was in use, albeit with occasional "irregularities," by the second half of the sixteenth century in France; that it was fixed by French prosodists in the seventeenth century; that it fell into oblivion in the eighteenth century; that it was "revived" by French and English poets in the nineteenth century; and that it went on to thrive in a twentieth-century climate inhospitable to most verse forms. In this essay, however, I show that the fixed-form villanelle "tradition" was a ruse manufactured by an eighteenth-century priest and popularized by a nineteenth-century satirist, based on a single preexisting specimen in the A 1 bA 2 abA 1 abA 2 abA 1 abA 2 abA 1 A 2 form.

A number of respected sources have claimed that the fixed-form villanelle tradition began prior to the sixteenth century. Edmund Gosse wrote in Cornhill Magazine in 1877 that the villanelle was one of "the six most important of the poetic creations of old France," dating back "at least as far as the fifteenth century." George Saintsbury "confirmed" in 1882 that the villanelle was one of the "artificial" French forms of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, adding that it had mysteriously "survived the other épiceries condemned by Du Bellay." Several recent sources, as well, endow the fixed-form villanelle with a medieval heritage. The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms (1989) lists it as one of "a...

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