Pendragon Lectures (X)

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Wendy Cope’s Villanelle

 

I am now up in Glasgow enjoying a brief flirtation with Scotland. It was on the way up, gazing on the gorgeousness of the Lake District & Scottish Lowlands, that I realized my initial projection of conducting a 2 year dissertation on the Poetic Art is perhaps a little too much : after all, idleness is the true nurse-maid of poetry. Instead, continuing with the winter’s theme of writing 18-part ‘blockbusters,’ I shall spend the next nine posts trying to wrap up my poetic philosophies at this time. I have already sketched out the plan for the second half of these Lectures, & shall begin with showing how a traditional poetic form, when given proper credence by a modern poet, can produce wonderful effects.

 

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Wendy Cope is among the heavyweights of British poetry, whose work has a refreshing brevity of wit, sprinkled with some quite resonant observations. With her reputation well established, she was not afraid of attempting an obscure & old form, the Villanelle. Originating in the folk-songs of rural France, it found its modern form in the early 17th century, & later it taken to heart by the British Victorians, the first batch being published in Gleeson White’s Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles (1887). Throughout the 20th century, a few poets had a pop; with Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night being the most famous;

 

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears,
I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The chief elements of a Villanelle are its 19 lines, its rhyming scheme & the use of refrains in the third line of each tercet. The two refrains are also used to conclude the poem in the closing quatrain. Now then, Im going to show you how Wendy Cope handled here experience of composing through the Villanelle.

 

Hugo Williams
Hugo Williams

A Villanelle For Hugo Williams

What can I say? I’d like to be polite
But have you ever seen a villanelle?
You ask me “Have I got the rhyme-scheme right?”
 
Is that a joke? You’re not a neophyte
Or some green-inker who can barely spell.
What can I say? I like to be polite.

No, not exactly, Hugo. No, not quite.
I trust this news won’t plunge you into hell:
Your rhyme-scheme is some miles from being right.
 
What’s going on? I know you’re very bright.
You’ve won awards. You write supremely well.
What can I say? I like to be polite
 
And this is true: your books are a delight,
In prose, free verse and letters you excel.
You want my help with getting rhyme-schemes right.
 
You seem dead keen to master them, despite
Your puzzling inability to tell
Which bit goes where. These lines, if not polite,
Will be of use, I hope. The rhyme-scheme’s right.

 

Not a bad effort, a little bland & a little awkward metrically – but at least, ‘the rhyme-scheme’s right.’ In the same collection in which this poem appeared – Family Values (2011) – there are two more Villanelles; Probably & the most excellent Lissadell, with which I shall close this lecture. Notice how the measure has changed & given the overall effect a lyrical beauty.  For poets of the future, this is a perfect model for how to experiment in a new form. Write a kick-about, cardies-as-goalposts, kinda poem to get a feel for the form, then find your own personal take on it & fill it with your heart’s overflow.

Lissadell

Last year we went to Lissadell.
The sun shone over Sligo Bay
And life was good and all was well.

The bear, the books, the dinner bell,
An air of dignified decay.
Last year we went to Lissadell.

This year the owners had to sell—
It calls to mind a Chekhov play.
Once life was good and all was well.

The house is now an empty shell,
The contents auctioned, shipped away.
Last year we went to Lissadell

And found it magical. “We fell
In love with it,” we sometimes say
When life is good and all is well.

The light of evening. A gazelle.
It seemed unchanged since Yeats’s day.
Last year we went to Lissadell
And life was good and all was well.

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