The villanelle, a French form codified in the 16th century, has its roots in Italian folk song. The term villanella has its etymological origin in villano, an Italian word for "peasant," and in villa, the Latin word for "farm" or "country house." It may have begun as a round, a work song to accompany various agricultural tasks.

The villanelle was established as a French form by Jean Passerat (1534-1602), whose rustic song about a lost turtledove created the vogue for the villanelle as a form of pastoral. Passerat's villanelle, which is really a love poem, permanently set the pattern. Here are the first three stanzas:

I have lost my dove:

Is there nothing I can do?

I want to go after my love.

Do you miss the one you love?

Alas! I really do:

I have lost my dove.

If your love you prove

Then my faith is true;

I want to go after my love.

The villanelle consists of 19 lines divided into six stanzas -- five tercets and one quatrain. The first and third lines become the refrain lines of alternate stanzas, and the final two lines of the poem. They rhyme throughout, as do the middle lines of each stanza. The entire poem builds around two repeated lines and turns on a pair of rhymes.

The villanelle entered English poetry in the 19th century as a form of light verse (there are examples by Andrew Lang, Oscar Wilde and W.E. Henley), but it took on a more majestic life in the 20th century. Many modern poets have intuited how the form's compulsive returns could suit a poetry of loss (Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art") or a poetry raging against loss (Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"). Two of the finest English villanelles, W.H. Auden's "If I Could Tell You" and William Empson's "Missing Dates," are about the haunting exactions of time.

One could make an excellent anthology of American villanelles, including ones by Edwin Arlington Robinson ("The House on the Hill"), Theodore Roethke ("The Waking"), Weldon Kees ("Five Villanelles"), Carolyn Kizer ("On a Line by Valery"), Anthony Hecht ("Prospects"), Mona Van Duyn ("Condemned Site"), Mark Strand ("Two de Chiricos"), Marilyn Hacker ("Villanelle"), Michael Ryan ("Milk the Mouse"), Deborah Digges ("The Rockettes") and William Olsen ("Hereafter").

Here is a villanelle from Jennifer Grotz's splendid first book of poems, Cusp, which is the winner of this year's Breadloaf Bakeless Prize.


"Try to praise the mutilated world." -- Adam Zagajewski

To love the world is what you try to do,

describe the trash, the bombs, the fisted greed --

when it does not love back, does not love you.

There are still breezes, kisses, and a few

more pleasures between gratitude and need.

To love the world is what you try to do

after seeing the slow old man pursue

in the parking lot a cart that gathers speed.

When it does not love back, does not love you,

the world seems like a hammer and a screw.

Aside from watch and act, can one succeed

to love the world? What they say's untrue,

that what you do won't matter. View

the world as a book that needs to be reread

when it does not love back, does not love you.

Or, watch it like a candle troubled into blue

under a fan, a candle filigreed

to love the world. It's what you try to do

when it does not love back, does not love you.

(Anne Waldman's translation of Jean Passerat's "Villanelle" appears in "The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms," edited by Ron Padgett. Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Copyright © 1987 by Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Jennifer Grotz's "Try" appears in her book "Cusp." Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 2003 by Jennifer Grotz.)