Wendy Cope’s Villanelle

Poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance
Matthew Arnold

I am now up in Glasgow enjoying a brief flirtation with Scotland. It was while en route from Lancashire, gazing on the hilly gorgeousness of the Lake District & the Scottish Lowlands, that I opened up a copy of Wendy Cope. Among the heavyweights of modern British poetry, her work possesses refreshing brevity of wit, sprinkled with some quite resonant observations. With her reputation well established, she was not afraid to attempt an old & obscure form, the Villanelle. Originating in the folk-songs of rural France, its etymology derives from the Medieval Latin ‘villanus,’ meaning ‘farmhand.’ Out of many regulat & irregulatr variations, the Villanelle found its modern form in the early 17th century, when Jean Passerat published his Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle) in 1606. Passerat’s effort became the standard villanelle when prosodists such as César-Pierre Richelet based their definitions of the form on that poem. This structure would then be taken to heart by the exotica-loving British Victorians, with their first batch of compositions being published in Gleeson White’s Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles (1887).

Despite its definition as a French form, by far the majority of Villanelles have been composed by English speaking poets. There is no established meter to speak of, but the rhyme scheme is very much what defines a Villanelle. The poem consists of five tercets, followed by a single quatrain, for a total of nineteen lines. It is structured by two repeating rhymes and two refrains: the first line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and the third line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. The rhyme-and-refrain pattern of the villanelle can be schematized as A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2. It seems the quirky rhyme form & tempo of the form fits perfectly with the sensibilities of the English tongue. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas, is a supreme example of what a Villanelle may achieve when composed in the English language.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears,
I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The chief elements of a Villanelle are its 19 lines, the convoluted rhyming scheme & the use of two distinct refrains in the third line of each tercet. The two refrains are also used to conclude the poem in the closing quatrain. With this in mind, let us examine how Wendy Cope handled her own experience of composing with the Villanelle form.

A Villanelle For Hugo Williams

What can I say? I’d like to be polite
But have you ever seen a villanelle?
You ask me “Have I got the rhyme-scheme right?”

Is that a joke? You’re not a neophyte
Or some green-inker who can barely spell.
What can I say? I like to be polite.

No, not exactly, Hugo. No, not quite.
I trust this news won’t plunge you into hell:
Your rhyme-scheme is some miles from being right.

What’s going on? I know you’re very bright.
You’ve won awards. You write supremely well.
What can I say? I like to be polite

And this is true: your books are a delight,
In prose, free verse and letters you excel.
You want my help with getting rhyme-schemes right.

You seem dead keen to master them, despite
Your puzzling inability to tell
Which bit goes where. These lines, if not polite,
Will be of use, I hope. The rhyme-scheme’s right.

Not a bad effort, a little bland & somewhat awkward metrically – but at least, ‘the rhyme-scheme’s right.’ In the same collection in which this poem appeared, Family Values (2011), there are two more Villanelles; Probably & the most excellent Lissadell, with which I shall close this lecture. Notice how in Lissadell the measure has changed, proscribeing an overall effect of lyrical beauty. Just like Dylan Thomas, the words are given further beauty by the Villanelle’s enigmatic trundle.

Last year we went to Lissadell.
The sun shone over Sligo Bay
And life was good and all was well.

The bear, the books, the dinner bell,
An air of dignified decay.
Last year we went to Lissadell.
This year the owners had to sell—
It calls to mind a Chekhov play.
Once life was good and all was well.

The house is now an empty shell,
The contents auctioned, shipped away.
Last year we went to Lissadell

And found it magical. “We fell
In love with it,” we sometimes say
When life is good and all is well.

The light of evening. A gazelle.
It seemed unchanged since Yeats’s day.
Last year we went to Lissadell
And life was good and all was well.

For the coming poets of future days engaging in the Villanelle, or something like it, is the perfect pathway for those taken with a wish to experiment in alternative forms. To begin with you should write a kick-about, cardies-as-goalposts poem, in order to feel your way into the form, as in Cope’s effort for Hugo Williams. At a later stage, when you are fully aware of the form’s nuances & capabilities, you should fill it with your heart’s overflow. Think Tolkien writing the Hobbit in a playful mood, then absorbing his soul into the Lord of the Rings. From exercise mastery comes.

May 11th

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