The attraction of the Villanelle

Poets are perverse. In the mid-19th century William Ernest Henley wrote what he intended to be a self-descriptive poem about a strict verse form called the Villanelle. How strict is the Vilanelle? Let’s just say the Villanelle is as artificial as a Fabergé egg. It repeats, not merely two rhymes, but two whole lines throughout the poem. Henley’s message in his villanelle is that the Villanelle is unfit for serious poetry.

 

A Dainty Thing’s the Vilanelle

 

(William Ernest Henley)

 

A DAINTY thing’s the Villanelle,                      a1

Sly, musical, a jewel in rhyme,                       b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2

 

A double-clappered silver bell                        a

That must be made to clink in chime,             b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle;                        a1

 

And if you wish to flute a spell,                      a

Or ask a meeting ‘neath the lime,                  b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2

 

You must not ask of it the swell                     a

Of organs grandiose and sublime —               b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle;                        a1

 

And, filled with sweetness, as a shell             a

Is filled with sound, and launched in time,    b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2

 

Still fair to see and good to smell                   a

As in the quaintness of its prime,                   b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle,                        a1

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2

 

As if to prove Henley not only wrong but lacking in foresight, several well-known poets have produced powerful poems in the verse form, Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, being the most notable. Its first tercet is instantly recognisable.

 

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.

 

Is the Villanelle a viable verse form? James Fenton in his 2002 “An introduction to English poetry” makes the claim, “Few poets have written a Villanelle worth reading, or indeed regret not having done so.” I’m not sure in the 21st Century that he is correct. Enough evidence exists of other outstanding poets, attracted to rhyme, at least trying on the corset of the Villanelle, including WH Auden and  Sylvia Plath.

And a host of others, influenced by the New Formalism have followed suit. Amanda French, who has gone to the lengths of publishing a website dedicated to her dissertation on the Villanelle, writes: “I have compiled a list of villanelles indicating that over a hundred villanelles have been published in reputable literary journals and books since 1985, and I am not so simple as to suppose that this constitutes the entirety even of published villanelles from that period.”

Fenton’s broader point, however, is that the poet’s choice in writing is not between the chains of artificial forms like the Vilanelle and free verse, but in finding through experiment with form the right method of expression for our particular needs: “The choice is between the nullity and vanity of our first efforts, and the developing of a sense of idiom, form, structure, metre, rhythm, line — all the fundamental characteristics of this verbal art. Of course our first attempts will be vain. They will be vain because they must be ambitious.”

For me the attraction of the Villanelle came with picking up a slim volume of William Empson’s verse and chancing on this 1937 poem:

Slowly the Poison the Whole Bloodstream Fills

 

William Empson

 

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

It is not the effort nor the failure tires.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

 

It is not your system or clear sight that mills

Down small to the consequence a life requires;

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

 

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills

Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires;

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

 

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills

Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

 

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.

The complete fire is death. From partial fires

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

 

It is the poems you have lost, the ills

From missing dates, at which the heart expires.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

 

I was struck by the sheer vigour of the poem, its emotional and intellectual force. Strict verse, however, needs skill not to overbalance. Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song begins:

 

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 poem’s central idea is brilliant, but this is far from the edgy poetry that propelled Plath into a singular fame. It is perilously close to Wendy Cope’s light verse in tone. This is the risk of formal verse

Many poets today will choose free verse, the dominant form in the English-speaking world, unfettered, unchained, wild. Superb, affecting poems are written in free verse all the time, by poets who have long forgotten rhyme and metre, which they consign to limericks and other humorous expression. But much free verse is flaccid, meandering and timid. Often it displays a deliberate obscurity, as if to conceal the vacuous nature at the heart of the exercise. Fenton also comments in his book on modern poetry’s desertion of music and of voiced performance in favour of the printed line. I wonder whether, in addition, the discipline of rhyming verse might not reveal to would-be poets themselves the weakness of the some of the lines they pen.