Villanelles

villanelle

The Villanelle

There are many good and even great villanelles. I’d like to dedicate a topic to them.

Lonely Hearts

By Wendy Cope

Can someone make my simple wish come true?
Male biker seeks female for touring fun.
Do you live in North London? Is it you?

Gay vegetarian whose friends are few,
I’m into music, Shakespeare and the sun.
Can someone make my simple wish come true?

Executive in search of something new—
Perhaps bisexual woman, arty, young.
Do you live in North London? Is it you?

Successful, straight and solvent? I am too—
Attractive Jewish lady with a son.
Can someone make my simple wish come true?

I’m Libran, inexperienced and blue—
Need slim, non-smoker, under twenty-one.
Do you live in North London? Is it you?

Please write (with photo) to Box 152.
Who knows where it may lead once we’ve begun?
Can someone make my simple wish come true?
Do you live in North London? Is it you?

wendycope

A standard villanelle has two rhymes, 19 lines, and two lines that are repeated throughout the poem. Repeated line A appears in lines 1, 6, 12, and 18. Repeated line B recurs in lines 2, 9, 15, and 19.  It is essential that lines A and B can work well together or even get married and grow old together, while keeping the passion and fervor of early days.  Wendy Cope’s “Lonely Hearts” is an example of a witty villanelle:  it’s meant to both parody the “personal ads” (from before the days of computer dating) and also to show the poignance of loneliness.

Here’s an other example:

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.
Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,
And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.
There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.“The House on the Hill” by Edwin Arlington Robinson.
Line one, “They are all gone away” recurs in lines 6, 12, and 18.

The two rhymes used are “away” and “still”. The form provides an unusual amount of constraint, which means that while it might not be difficult to write a villanelle, it is very difficult to write a readable, yet alone a memorable, one.

“The House on the Hill” is a bleak example–it’s moody and atmospheric. I like the  melancholy, mystery, and finality EAR evokes.

Some villanelles rouse the spirit with an exhortation; some are very witty.   How difficult it must be to write a good one with all of the constraints of the form (and I very much like formal poetry that is pulled off well). Elizabeth Bishop and Dylan Thomas have some wonderful villanelles that deserve their own posts.  The Elizabeth Bishop villanelle, “One Art” is especially brilliant.

Here’s another example by Sylvia Plath:
Mad Girl’s Love Song

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 darkness 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.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said.
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

–Sylvia Plath

All of this repetition and reiteration! It’s a good way to describe the claustrophobia of overwhelming emotion–especially Plathian emotion.

“The Waking” is astute to the uncertainly of life.  “I wake to sleep” reminds me of J. Alfred Prufrock’s idea that “mermaids wake us and we drown”.  We wake from the uncanny dream world into the uncertain fate of our human condition.
 

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.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

This poem is complicated by the many levels of sleep/waking Roethke examines:  Is he being ironic or precautionary when he proclaims “God bless the Ground!”  Is this  lover of root cellars commending the fact that the “lowly worm” has got a “winding stair”  The final four lines are a brilliant commentary on the transience and paradox of life:  “shaking” keeps him “steady” and “what falls away” is “always”.  It is essential, perhaps, to shake to stay sturdy and to know that there is no “always” and to keep that idea clear and near.
“Prospects”

By Anthony Hecht

We have set out from here for the sublime
Pastures of summer shade and mountain stream;
I have no doubt we shall arrive on time.

Is all the green of that enamelled prime
A snapshot recollection or a dream?
We have set out from here for the sublime

Without provisions, without one thin dime,
And yet, for all our clumsiness, I deem
It certain that we shall arrive on time.

No guidebook tells you if you’ll have to climb
Or swim. However foolish we may seem,
We have set out from here for the sublime

And must get past the scene of an old crime
Before we falter and run out of steam,
Riddled by doubt that we’ll arrive on time.
Yet even in winter a pale paradigm
Of birdsong utters its obsessive theme.
We have set out from here for the sublime;
I have no doubt we shall arrive on time.

 

The brilliant Anthony Hecht provides another villanelle that seems to accompany Roethke’s on the dubious stair-case.   The first stanza brims with confidence.  Yes, let’s all set off for the sublime!  How easeful and easy and green it will be.  Are we thinking of a memory or a photograph?    We don’t have any money; we don’t have any food, and we are clumsy!  We don’t even have a guidebook that tells us if we might need to swim or climb.  And it’s winter to boot!

And we need to pass an old crime-scene.  We are “riddled by doubt” that we will make it in time.  The “old crime” could be original sin or more likely the secular sin of being human.  Birdsong reminds us of the poetic birds that provide a paradigm for poetry and singing:  Keats’s Nightingale, Shelley’s Skylark, Hardy’s thrush, Yeats’s indignant desert birds And the green enamel bird he wishes to become.  Prospects finally is less likely to be about the distant view and perspective and more about the future of people and all of the obsessive themes we create.

These villanelles range from light and sparkling to unsettling and nerve-wracking but they all also demonstrate the masterful work of lines playing echo and response to each other.

anthonyhecht

Author: Gubbinal

Bookish, tea-drinking cat-lady who loves great poetry

5 thoughts on “Villanelles”

    1. I did write the following in the center of my post:

      “Elizabeth Bishop and Dylan Thomas have some wonderful villanelles that deserve their own posts. The Elizabeth Bishop villanelle, “One Art” is especially brilliant.”

      Yes, I love that one and hope to write about it in particular one day.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s