Villanelles: Why They Are so F**king Difficult (High Church)

Dylan Thomas, 1914-1953, was a fairly brilliant drunkard, and I do not believe that those two things very often overlap. I do not know what his relationship with his father was like, although it seems that many famous men did not do well with that particular issue, so I am guessing it was, at the least, a bit fraught. Lovely word, that. So here is the poem about death that most Americans seem to think of whenever anyone mentions a formal form of poetry that is not a sonnet.

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.

Now a villanelle combines (in my opinion) the disadvantages of a sonnet and the advantages of a sestina. On the one hand, we only have two rhyme sounds: ite and ay, and we have to manage nineteen lines with these. On the other hand, once we have chosen the two lines to repeat, they take up eight of those nineteen lines. All we have to do after that is find six B rhymes and five A rhymes. No problemo! (Yeah, right.)

The problem I have with villanelles is that I have a hard enough time coming up with lines that I can say once, much less than eight times! Look at how Thomas manages this. He uses a succession that moves from wise men, to good men, to wild men, to grave men and finally to the speakers father. This is very similar to what pop music composers call coloring of verses, where each verse makes the same old chorus mean something different (as in Mark Wills country song Wish You Were Here).

But he very strictly follows the form: each of the two repeated lines is repeated EXACTLY every time. (I think of this as High Church Formal Poetry (HCFP): the rubrics are crucial and must be obeyed.) And to give the man his due, I suspect this is one reason why people ALWAYS remember his villanelle, even when they no longer have a clue as to what a villanelle actually is.

Thomas, Dylan. The Poems of Dylan Thomas. New Directions, 1952.

One comment on “Villanelles: Why They Are so F**king Difficult (High Church)

  1. PJS says:

    Another that comes to (my) mind is “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath, but she cheats a bit with the sounds:


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