1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Villanelle

VILLANELLE, a form of verse, originally loose in construction, but since the 16th century bound in exact limits of an arbitrary kind. The word is ultimately derived from the Latin villa, a country house or farm, through the Italian villano, a peasant or farm hand, and a villanelle was primarily a round song taken up by men on a farm. The Spaniards called such a song a villancejo or villancete or a villancico, and a man who improvised villanelles was a villanciquero. The villanelle was a pastoral poem made to accompany a rustic dance, and from the first it was necessary that it should contain a regular system of repeated lines. The old French villanelles, however, were irregular in form. One of the most celebrated, the “Rosette, pour un peu d'absence” of Philippe Desportes (1545–1606), is a sort of ballade, and those contained in the Astrée of d’Urfé, 1610, are scarcely less unlike the villanelles of modern times. It appears, indeed, to have been by an accident that the special and rigorously defined form of the villanelle was invented. In the posthumous poems of Jean Passerat (1534–1602), which were printed in 1606, several villanelles were discovered, in different forms. One of these became, and has remained, so deservedly popular, that it has given its exact character to the subsequent history of the villanelle. This famous poem runs as follows:—

"J'ai perdu ma tourterelle:
Est-ce point celle que j’oi?
Je veux aller après elle.

Tu regrettes ta femelle?
Hélas! aussi fais-je moi:
J'ai perdu ma tourterelle.

Si ton amour est fidèle,
Aussi est ferme ma foi:
Je veux aller après elle.

Ta plainte se renouvelle?
Toujours plaindre je me dois:
J'ai perdu ma tourterelle.

En ne voyant plus la belle
Plus rien de beau je ne vois:
Je veux aller après elle.

Mort, que tant de fois j'appelle,
Prends ce qui se donne à toi:
J'ai perdu ma tourterelle,
Je veux aller après elle."

This exquisite lyric has continued to be the type of its class, and the villanelle, therefore, for the last three hundred years has been a poem, written in tercets, on two rhymes, the first and the third line being repeated alternatively in each tercet It is usual to confine the villanelle to five tercets, but that is not essential; it must, however, close with a quatrain, the last two lines of which are the first and third line of the original tercet. The villanelle was extremely admired by the French poets of the Parnasse, and one of them, Théodore de Banville, compared it to a ribband of silver and gold traversed by a thread of rose-colour. Boulmier, who was the first to point out that Passerat was the inventor of the definite villanelle, published collections of these poems in 1878 and 1879, and was preparing another when he died in 1881. When, in 1877, so many of the early French forms of verse were introduced, or reintroduced, into English literature, the villanelle attracted a great deal of attention; it was simultaneously cultivated by W. E. Henley, Austin Dobson, Lang and Gosse. Henley wrote a large number, and he described the form itself in a specimen beginning:—

A dainty thing's the Villanelle,
Sly, musical, a jewel in rhyme,
It serves its purpose passing well.”

It has since then been very frequently used by English and American poets. There are several excellent examples in English of humorous villanelles, especially those by Austin Dobson and by Henley.

See Joseph Boulmier, Les Villanelles (Paris, 1878; 2nd enlarged edition, 1879).

(E. G.)