Chapter Three: Ardent Ways

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The history of the villanelle in the first half of the twentieth century has been better understood than the history of the villanelle in the nineteenth century and before, partly because there is little to understand. Contemporary poetry handbooks that sum up the trivialized existence of the form during the first decades of the century in a sentence or two need hardly say more. The post-Romantic movements having either petered out or evolved into something new (e.g., the poetry of the Celtic Twilight), the villanelle appeared chiefly as an occasional guest in popular periodicals; it became the property of amateur poets. Between 1900 and 1945, villanelles almost always appeared in “magazines” and “digests” rather than in the weightier “reviews” (see Appendix II): Pall Mall Magazine, Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Punch, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Literary Digest, Writer’s Digest, Papers of the Manchester Literary Club. The villanelle appealed to bibliophiles, as well; instances can be found in Book-Lover and Bookman. The villanelle was briefly explained and illustrated in several mass-audience poetry handbooks, and there was of course Gosse’s entry in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1 “Villanelle” was by no means a household word, but the rules of the form had been released into the teeming din of general knowledge.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 If the amateur villanelles were infrequent, villanelles by now-canonical writers in the same period were even rarer: Ezra Pound’s free-verse “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour” of 1915; James Joyce’s “Villanelle of the Temptress,” written circa 1900 and first published in 1915 in the serial version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; William Empson’s three villanelles of 1928, 1937, and 1940; and W. H. Auden’s three villanelles of 1940 and 1944 comprise almost the entirety of the catalogue. Ronald McFarland’s The Villanelle obscures the continued inconsequentiality of the villanelle in the early decades of the century by treating the period from 1915 to 1953 (Pound to Plath) as one phase, a key phase, in the development of the villanelle. The chapter “From Ezra Pound to Mid-Century: The Form in a Major Key” concludes that “By the end of the 1950’s, the villanelle had been established as an accepted form in English and American poetry. Its range had been demonstrated. […] Most important, however, were the achievements with the form by poets of major stature, from Pound and Auden to Thomas and Roethke” (96). McFarland’s work thus implies that there was a steady development in the form from high modernism to the major poets of the nineteen-fifties, and elsewhere he makes this claim more explicit, writing that “Since the end of the nineteenth century, the villanelle has had a fairly strong and steady growth among poets writing in English” (59). Manfred Pfister’s 1982 article “Die Villanelle in der englischen Moderne: Joyce, Empson, Dylan Thomas” (“The Villanelle in English Modernism: Joyce, Empson, Dylan Thomas”) carries the same implications of a relatively unified modernist attitude toward the villanelle, though in his view the modernists did not work to demonstrate the range of the form; they worked to dissociate themselves from it. Pfister argues that the villanelles by the three authors he discusses are the result of the “quotation quality” (“Zitatcharakter”) of modernist poetics, in which Joyce, Empson, and Thomas “quote” fixed forms ironically in order to distance themselves from those forms and the fin de siècle ideals they expressed (298).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I would argue, however, that it is a mistake to trace a coherent narrative of any kind regarding the villanelle in this period. There is little continuity between the villanelles by now-canonical poets in the first half of the century; these instances represent neither a shared effort to make the villanelle serious through modernist gravitas nor a shared effort to make modernism serious through ironizing the villanelle. Pound’s “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour” does proclaim his rejection of the villanelle’s poetic scheme, and Joyce’s treatment of his own “Villanelle of the Temptress” in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man does essentially satirize Stephen’s hackneyed conception of art, but these were isolated instances that did not influence the later villanelles of Empson, Auden, and Thomas unless indirectly. William Empson’s sudden and evidently entirely idiosyncratic adoption of the villanelle, by contrast, had nothing ironic about it. Auden’s first two villanelles of 1940/1941 were also unironic experiments with the form, but Auden also uses the villanelle as a dramatic monologue for Miranda in The Sea and the Mirror (1944) to emphasize her naïveté–a term that had by then lost the positive connotations it had for the post-Romantics. Dylan Thomas wrote two villanelles: a parody of William Empson titled “Request to Leda” in 1942 and, nine years later, “Do not go gentle into that good night”–a wholly serious treatment of the form. Joyce and Pound could remember the heyday of the French forms in the eighteen-nineties, and were still exposed to popular examples of the forms in certain patriotic poems, whereas the later modernists had little if any knowledge of any prior examples of the villanelle. For Empson, Auden, and Thomas, the abstract scheme of the form existed separately from its post-Romantic history.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Moreover, the villanelle in this period should be considered at least to some extent in the context of the status and practice of the “French forms” in general. 2 From a contemporary perspective, the villanelle is different from the other French forms in two respects: it is more popular with contemporary poets, and it has no history prior to the nineteenth century (we now know). Both of these distinctions make the villanelle an interesting topic for study. But neither distinction applied in the early decades of the twentieth century, before a significant number of serious poets had attempted the villanelle and before the Parnassian confusion concerning its origins was exposed. Banville and Gosse and their followers had written more rondeaus than they had villanelles, and Andrew Lang preferred the ballade to any other of the French forms. There was little to suggest that the villanelle would be the fittest to survive. From the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, the villanelle was just one among the many French forms, and structurally, though not historically, it is indeed highly similar to the triolet, the ballade, the chant royale, the rondeau, the rondel, and other cousins. Most are characterized by refrain and by a frugal allotment of rhyme sounds: it is in fact no wonder that Passerat’s nonce invention A’bA” abA’ abA” abA’ abA” abA’A” was confused by Ténint et al. with schemes such as the rondel’s ABba abAB abbaA. The fortunes of the villanelle were for many decades coextensive with the fortunes of the other French forms.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The “history” that follows, therefore, is a decidedly incoherent and unteleological one, with snapshots of the villanelle collaged with a snapshot of the rondeau in one of its most famous incarnations, John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” The silent battle between the stylistic ideals of high modernism and the pragmatic aims of writers such as McCrae and Sir Charles G. D. Roberts is the proper context for the erratic history of the villanelle in the period; it is perfectly clear that in terms of literary history, the modernists won. All of the incidental footprints in the period show that the villanelle and the other French forms remained lower-class citizens for the high modernists, and that “demonstrating the range” of the villanelle was not within their purview. The villanelle was presumed dead. That very death, that very loss, however, led to the erasure of its history, and that in turn led to a rejuvenation: Empson, Auden, and finally Thomas approached the villanelle as an almost purely abstract entity without the burden of a contentious history.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Notes:

  1. 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0
  2. As a general rule in this period, the villanelle tended to be discussed in scholarly works dealing specifically with the history of French poetry and not in works dealing with poetry in English: George Saintsbury’s monumental narrative work of scholarship A History of English Prosody from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day (London and NY: Macmillan, 1906-10) did not discuss the villanelle, whereas the form was mentioned in Saintsbury’s A Short History of French Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1882). The villanelle form was also explained and discussed in Gleeson White’s Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &C (London, New York: W. Scott limited, 1887); Leon Kastner’s A History of French Versification (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903); and Helen Louise Cohen’s Lyric Forms from France: Their History and Their Use (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1922). Popular poetry handbooks and manuals, however, did frequently include the French forms even when their titles explicitly claimed to deal with English verse. One well-known versification manual that explained the villanelle was Tom Hood’s The Rhymester: Or, the Rules of Rhyme. A Guide to English Versification. With a Dictionary of Rhymes, an Examination of Classical Measures, and Comments Upon Burlesque, Comic Verse and Song-Writing (London: John Hogg, 1869, 1877, 1880, 1892; New York: D. Appleton, 1882, 1891, 1896, 1902, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1916, 1921, 1928, 1929). This work had several slightly different titles, and was edited in its Appleton editions by Brander Matthews under the pseudonym “Arthur Penn.” Its 1882 edition defers to Boulmier as an authority. Other versification manuals that described the villanelle included Francis Barton Gummere’s A Handbook of Poetics, for Students of English Verse (Boston and London: Ginn, 1885, 1886, 1888, 1890, 1892, 1895, 1898, 1902, 1903, and 1913); Raymond Macdonald Alden’s English Verse; Specimens Illustrating Its Principles and History, English Readings (NY: H. Holt and Company, 1903, 1937); and James Wilson Bright and Raymond Durbin Miller’s The Elements of English Versification (Boston and London: Ginn, 1910, 1913).
  3. See note 15 to Chapter Two for an explanation of my concerns with the term “French forms,” which I find unnecessarily nationalist and inaccurate (especially in the case of the villanelle). The term “fixed forms” is more exact, more neutral, more abstract–but this category would of course include the sonnet, and Anglophone poets and scholars have historically maintained a rigid patriotic separation between the English sonnet and every other fixed form.
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