¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In the introduction I documented the recent resurgence of the nineteen-line villanelle, a resurgence that has no doubt already been noted in a general way by those steeped in contemporary Anglophone poetry. One need only pick up a new anthology by a former U.S. Poet Laureate to verify this resurgence, since Billy Collins’s 2003 anthology Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry includes two nineteen-line villanelles: Mary Jo Salter’s “Video Blues” and Steve Kowit’s “Grammar Lesson.” I also pointed out that very recent scholarship by Julie Kane has conclusively shown that the nineteen-line villanelle was only a nonce form in sixteenth-century France, a finding that directly contradicts the assertion of most twentieth-century poetry handbooks that the nineteen-line villanelle (schematized as A’bA” abA’ abA” abA’ abA” abA’A”) was at that time a traditional fixed poetic form.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In this chapter, I turn from the tasks of establishing what is already known and publicizing what will soon be better known to another task: narrating the largely unknown early history of the contemporary villanelle. Jean Passerat’s 1574 “Villanelle” (“J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle”) is the first nineteen-line villanelle, and it was the only nineteen-line villanelle for two and a half centuries; the history of “the villanelle” in the Renaissance that I offer here is therefore simply a history of this poem. 1 Kane has already done a thorough job of demonstrating that “villanella” was a primarily musical term and of establishing that the other poems titled “Villanelle” or “Villanesque” in the Renaissance (of which there were very few: seventeen, to be precise) were formally unfixed, and therefore this ground need not be covered again. My task is primarily to challenge romantic and/or incomplete contemporary accounts of the villanelle’s history. Little attention has been paid to Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” in the twentieth century, which is in itself significant: as I argue throughout this work, the resurgence of the “French Renaissance” villanelle form in contemporary Anglophone poetry would probably not have taken place if our misty notions of its origins had ever been dispelled. The villanelle has been made to represent a sweeter long-ago that never existed.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The current perception of the early history of the villanelle can be represented by a twentieth-century work that does mention Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle”: Mark Strand and Eavan Boland’s The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (2000). This work is not specifically associated with New Formalism, and the account of the villanelle to be found in it is longer than those commonly found in poetry handbooks and dictionaries. We might therefore expect The Making of a Poem to be both authoritative and mainstream, even though (or especially since) its intended audience is clearly of the undergraduate persuasion. It is therefore worth quoting Strand and Boland’s “History of the Form” at some length, almost in full.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 It hardly seems likely that a form so sparkling and complicated as the villanelle could have had its origin in an Italian harvest field. In fact it came from an Italian rustic song, the term itself villanella thought to derive from villano, an Italian word for “peasant,” or even villa the Latin word for “country house” or “farm.”
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 If it was a round song–something sung with repetitive words and refrains–it may have taken its first, long-lost shape as an accompaniment to the different stages of an agricultural task. Binding sheaves, perhaps, or even scything. No actual trace of this early origin remains. By the time the villanelle emerges into poetic history, it does so as a French poem with pastoral themes.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The form we know today began with the work of a French poet called Jean Passerat. He was a popular, politically engaged writer in sixteenth-century France. When he died in 1602, he left behind him several poems that had entered popular affection and memory.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 One of these was his villanelle about a lost turtledove: a disguised love song. Even through a fraction of Passerat’s poems [sic] on his lost turtledove, the twentieth-century villanelle can be seen clearly:
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 With the publication of this villanelle and because of its immediate popularity–amounting almost to popular-song status in its day–the form defined itself through contact with an audience: a striking but not uncommon way for poetic form to find itself.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 This poem established the pattern for all future villanelles, both in French and English. The actual structure is as follows. […] In the 1870s in England, French poetry became an object of interest and admiration. Swinburne, for instance, wrote an elegy for Baudelaire. This was followed by an interest in the forms of French verse and several poets of the time, including Henley and Oscar Wilde, took it up. (6-7).
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 This account is inaccurate in several important respects. The first minor point to make is that the Italian villanella was not an authentic folk song. It was a courtly song that may or may not have been popular among the bourgeoisie; it was certainly not grown in Italian fields among the peasantry. Ronald McFarland discusses this issue in depth in the first chapter of The Villanelle: The Evolution of a Poetic Form. He writes, for instance, that the villanella “assume[s] a popular tone for the most part, as Galanti has indicated, but usually with a certain affectation of concetti, refinement of sentiment, and preciseness of phrasing and versification” (2), and concludes that “It is best then to consider the Italian villanella of the sixteenth century not semipopular, but quasipopular, the product, for the most part, of conscious imitation of a popular source” (24-5). In other words, the composer of a villanella invoked the simple, the rustic, the romantic for an artistic effect, just as Cambridge-educated Christopher Marlowe did in the poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (1599/1600).
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 A second and more important point to make is that the influential nineteen-line scheme of Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” has in any case almost nothing to do with the villanella, so that the question of whether the villanella was a folk song or a courtly song is essentially irrelevant. 2 Structurally, the villanella was marked by nothing more idiosyncratic than a refrain, an “idiosyncrasy” it shared (and shares) with the folk ballad, the blues, the ghazal, and any number of sung or chanted forms from every era and country. Passerat’s French title “Villanelle” alluded not to the form of the Italian villanella, but to its themes: simplicity, agrarian landscape, embodied rather than intellectualized emotion. This type of pastoral poem or song also became fashionable in England during the Renaissance under the name “Neapolitan” or “Napolitane” (the villanella was associated with Naples), and this too was a thematic and musical designation rather than a formal or structural one. The title of Passerat’s poem probably also indicated that the poem could be set to villanella music, although so far as we know this was never done. But to claim that the nineteen-line alternating-refrain form in tercets that we know today as the villanelle “had its origin in” or “evolved from” the villanella is akin to claiming that the poetic form of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” had its origin in or evolved from the music of Strauss. 3
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 There is a clear nostalgia in Strand and Boland’s entry, a longing for a golden age when poetry was truly popular (the word recurs four times in the brief passage), not marginalized and professionalized as everyone knows it is today. There are two senses of the word “popular” at work here: the sense of “much-loved” and the sense of “of the people.” Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” was not popular in either sense in its own day. It was a rather obscure lyric written by a rather obscure poet who inhabited a professionalized and privileged literary culture that in some ways was very much like our own professionalized and privileged literary culture. “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” was written for a king, and may have been distributed in manuscript in courtly circles, but there is little if any reason to suppose that the poem was admired even by that august and limited company, let alone by the general populace.
- ¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
- Throughout, to avoid various kinds of confusion, I refer to the poem by its first line rather than by its title. ↩
- Julie Ellen Kane is more inclined than McFarland to attribute a genuine folk derivation for the courtly villanella, which becomes important for her argument that the contemporary villanelle does in fact harken back to folk songs. I discuss this issue further below. ↩
- For McFarland, all Renaissance villanelles except “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” are “irregular form villanelles” (43). ↩