Early one morning, I woke to read a poem called “The Waking” posted by my on-line friend, the poet Charl Cilliers. The poem, by Theodore Roethke, was not only an inspirational way to start my day, but set me off on a course of exploration. Up to this point, I was unfamiliar with Roethke’s poems, so a great discovery for me to discover a major poet who, somehow or other, I had missed along the way. This particular poem is one of his most renowned, and seemed so apt for music, given its repeating refrains. That led me to a search for more poems in this form – the villanelle.
A quick hunt on-line led to discovering that many poets, famous and otherwise, have written villanelles. Struggling with what music to write next, I picked out a bunch of candidates to use to write a series of villanelle settings for small chorus, including: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Julie Sheehan’s “Cracked Ice,” Dylan Thomas’ famous “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” Edward Arlington Robinson’s “The Home on the Hill,” and Harvey Stanbrough’s “Roses?”
As of this writing, “The Waking” and “Roses?” are done. Plenty more to go, depending on how far I carry this latest obsession.
From Wikipedia —
A villanelle (also known as villanesque) is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines. The villanelle is an example of a fixed verse form. The word derives from Latin, then Italian, and is related to the initial subject of the form being the pastoral.
The form started as a simple ballad-like song with no fixed form; this fixed quality would only come much later, from the poem “Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)” (1606) by Jean Passerat. From this point, its evolution into the “fixed form” used in the present day is debated. Despite its French origins, the majority of villanelles have been written in English, a trend which began in the late nineteenth century. The villanelle has been noted as a form that frequently treats the subject of obsessions, and one which appeals to outsiders; its defining feature of repetition prevents it from having a conventional tone.