Many published works mistakenly claim that the strict modern form of the villanelle originated with the medieval troubadours, but in fact medieval and Renaissance villanelles were simple ballad-like songs with no fixed form or length. Such songs were associated with the country and were thought to be sung by farmers and shepherds, in contrast to the more complex madrigals associated with sophisticated city and court life. The French word villanelle comes from the Italian word villanella, which derives from the Latin villa (farm) and villano (farmhand); to any poet before the mid-nineteenth century, the word villanelle or villanella would have simply meant country song, with no particular form implied. The modern nineteen-line dual-refrain form of the villanelle derives from nineteenth-century admiration of the only Renaissance poem in that form: a poem about a turtledove by Jean Passerat (1534–1602) titled "Villanelle." The chief French popularizer of the villanelle form was the nineteenth-century author Théodore de Banville; Banville was led by Wilhelm Ténint to think that the villanelle was an antique form.
Although the villanelle is usually labeled "a French form," by far the majority of villanelles are in English. Edmund Gosse, influenced by Théodore de Banville, was the first English writer to praise the villanelle and bring it into fashion with his 1877 essay "A Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse." Gosse, Austin Dobson, Oscar Wilde, and Edwin Arlington Robinson were among the first English practitioners. Most modernists disdained the villanelle, which became associated with the overwrought formal aestheticism of the 1890s; i.e. the decadent movement in England. James Joyce included a villanelle ostensibly written by his adolescent fictional alter-ego Stephen Dedalus in his 1914 novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, probably to show the immaturity of Stephen's literary abilities. William Empson revived the villanelle more seriously in the 1930s, and his contemporaries and friends W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas also picked up the form. Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night" is perhaps the most renowned villanelle of all. Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath wrote villanelles in the 1950s and 1960s, and Elizabeth Bishop wrote a particularly famous and influential villanelle, "One Art," in 1976. The villanelle reached an unprecedented level of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of the New Formalism. Since then, many contemporary poets (for instance, John M. Ford) have written villanelles, and they have often varied the form in innovative ways.
The villanelle has no established meter, although most nineteenth-century villanelles have used trimeter or tetrameter and most twentieth-century villanelles have used pentameter. The essence of the fixed modern form is its distinctive pattern of rhyme and repetition. The rhyme-and-refrain pattern of the villanelle can be schematized as A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 where letters ("a" and "b") indicate the two rhyme sounds, upper case indicates a refrain ("A"), and superscript numerals (1 and 2) indicate Refrain 1 and Refrain 2.
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