Poets and scholars are all wrong about the villanelle. While most reference texts teach that the villanelle’s nineteen-line alternating-refrain form was codified in the Renaissance, the scholar Julie Kane has conclusively shown that Jean Passerat’s “Villanelle” (“J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle”), written in 1574 and first published in 1606, is the only Renaissance example of this form. My own research has discovered that the nineteenth-century “revival” of the villanelle stems from an 1844 treatise by a little- known French Romantic poet-critic named Wilhelm Ténint.
My study traces the villanelle first from its highly mythologized origin in the humanism of Renaissance France to its deployment in French post-Romantic and English Parnassian and Decadent verse, then from its bare survival in the period of high modernism to its minor revival by mid-century modernists, concluding with its prominence in the polyvocal culture wars of Anglophone poetry ever since Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (1976). The villanelle might justly be called the only fixed form of contemporary invention in English; contemporary poets may be attracted to the form because it connotes tradition without bearing the burden of tradition. Poets and scholars have neither wanted nor needed to know that the villanelle is not an archaic, foreign form.
The introduction documents the current popularity of the nineteen-line fixed-form villanelle in Anglophone poetry and its absence in Francophone poetry. The first chapter focuses on Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle,” offering a history, collation, interpretation, and new translation of this ignored original villanelle. The second chapter describes the highly politicized aesthetic context of nineteenth-century French and English post-Romanticism, when professional poet-critics Théodore de Banville and Edmund Gosse claimed a false history for the villanelle. The third chapter examines the low status of the French forms in the period of high modernism and the Great War, discussing works by Joyce and Pound as well as patriotic poems. The fourth chapter explores the sources of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” and its influence on later poets, especially Elizabeth Bishop. The conclusion places the villanelle firmly within the context of contemporary professional poetry culture.