Archives For Villanelle

The villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form originated in France in the late 1800s, and the structure is comprised of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The most famous villanelle is by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”

Do not go gentle into that good night, 

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.

I recently taught this poem to a class of Advanced Placement English Literature seniors who after some discussion were able to determine audience (“And you, my father..”), the form of address (imperative “Do not go“) and the poem’s paradox (“Curse, bless, me now“). They were intrigued by the most striking element of the poem, the repetition of the lines “Do not go gentle into that good night” (1, 6, 12, 18) and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (lines 3, 5,15,19). The ferocity of Thomas’s repeated exhortations increase because of the structure of the villanelle.

Structure matters. Structure, that “fundamental, tangible or intangible notion referring to the recognition, observation, nature, and permanence of patterns and relationships of entities” is not limited to poetry. Structure is in all the arts, and in all the sciences.

Structure matters in mathematics. Common Core Mathematic Practice Standard #7 requires students to:

Look for and make use of structure.

This standard details that “proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure,” and suggests, “young students, for example, might notice that three and seven more is the same amount as seven and three more.” Promoting this practice standard beyond the math classroom will have students noticing structure in other classes in every grade level. Students will be better equipped to recognize and use the structure of the periodic table or the color spectrum; they will be be prepared to identify and to employ patterns in pronouncing vowels and consonants. Students will be empowered to discover coordinates in longitude and latitude or to categorize the ingredients in food groups.

Recognizing and using structure is the critical academic skill that can help a student unravel both a problem in geometry or the complexity of a poetic structure like the villanelle. Once they understand the structure, they can evaluate the poet’s purposeful choice such as the one made by Dylan Thomas who selected the villanelle for this powerful poem.

The Common Core’s Mathematic Practice Standard #7 is in math and poetry. Note the same letters MP? Pattern? PossiblyCoincidence? Maybe not!

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We have been discussing loss a great deal in English class. In order to begin our  study of King Lear, students had to create lists of their 10 favorite things while I played the song “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. After they made their lists, I  had them “lose” -one at a time- an item off the list.

“Cross off #7,” I announced with great seriousness.
There were immediate groans from students.
“That’s Starbucks!” one whined.
“My truck!” claimed another, “How will I drive?”
“Cross off #3,” I called out.
More protestations. More groans.
“No way I am crossing off my dog,” another retorted.

Soon, their lists were down to two items each. They stirred uncomfortably; they were unsettled by the mere thought of being separated from things or people they valued.

“Maybe I value my stuff over people too much,” mused one thoughtfully looking over her list.

In this short exercise, my students conveyed some of the same sentiments that are expressed in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”:

One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master. (continued…)

My students were struck by the repetition of the words “master” and “disaster” in the poem, a result of the villanelle* (see below) format. They noted the progression of items lost in the poem: the car keys, the watch, the houses, the cities, rivers, and finally, the loss of continents.

They noted the choice of hyphens and parentheses in the poem. The hyphen at the beginning of the final stanza was a “hesitation” according to one student, “because she doesn’t even want to write the last stanza.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because she has to command herself,” the student replied, “See the parentheses and the words ‘(Write it!)’ on the last line?”

“Why? What is she losing in the last stanza?” I asked. They called out their ideas:
“Love.”
“You.”
“Her life…”

“So is the art of losing hard to master or not?” I asked them. They thought, and wrote the following in their notebooks:

  • “No one wants to  master losing things…who wants to be a loser, literally?”
  • “She is taking about the loss of physical objects in comparison to the loss of people, and no one wants to lose people…like a friend or lover.”
  • “The speaker is rushing towards the end, speaking faster with ‘shan’t’ and ‘losing’s’ as if things are slipping away, and out of control, until she writes down the losses….and commits them to memory.”
  • “She is trying to convince herself.”

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem brought my class back to the many themes we had been discussing in our unit on King Lear. We had spent several classes focused on the tragedy of a king who in dividing his kingdom, upends the order of the realm. In the process, he loses his daughters, his knights (protectors), his friends, his mind, and finally, his life. The students concluded that Lear was no “master of disaster.”

“Pretty cool that 19 lines can say almost the same thing as Shakespeare’s five act play,” concluded one student as he wrapped up his books  to leave.

Pretty cool, Elizabeth Bishop.

*villanelle: The villanelle has 19 lines, 5 stanzas of three lines and 1 stanza of four lines with two rhymes and two refrains. The 1st, then the 3rd lines alternate as the last lines of stanzas 2, 3, and 4, and then stanza 5 (the end) as a couplet. It is usually written in tetrameter (4 feet) or pentameter.