"Do not go gentle into that good night" is a villanelle: a fixed form that originated with the French courtly poets of the Middle Ages. What are its rules?

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andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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The villanelle has a quite rigid structure of which the following are the rules:

Firstly, the poem should consist of nineteen lines. This is made up of five stanzas of which each is a tercet (three lines). The final stanza is a quatrain (four lines). Furthermore, the poem's structure comprises two repeating rhymes and two refrains.

The first line of stanza one also functions as the last line of both the second and the fourth stanzas. The third line of the first stanza is used as the last line of stanzas three and five. The poem follows an aba rhyme-scheme.

The above conventions are illustrated below:

Do not go gentle into that good night,                      (refrain 1)      
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.                 (refrain 2)

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.                      (refrain 1)

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.                 (refrain 2)          

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.                     (refrain 1)

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.                 (refrain 2)

The villanelle does not require a particular meter. Most 19th-century villanelles have used trimeter (a line or verse made up of three meters) or tetrameter (a line or verse made up four meters) and most 20th-century villanelles have used pentameter (a line or verse made up of five meters). A meter (also called a 'foot') refers to a unit of rhythm in a line. The difference in meter is determined by which syllables in a line are stressed or unstressed.

Variations to the refrain line are also allowed in the villanelle, as in Sylvia Plath's 'Mad Girl's Love Song,' for example.

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