¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 By the end of the nineteenth century, the idea that the villanelle was a form dating from the French Renaissance or earlier was firmly established. 1 Poets and scholars of poetry, relying especially on the work of Banville, Gosse, and Dobson, showed less interest in actual Renaissance villanelles than they did in the potential of the villanelle to be mobilized in aesthetic challenges to the didacticism and conservatism of the most strongly established nineteenth-century poetry. Yet the challenge embodied in the villanelle lacked modernism’s commitment to contemporary experimentation; the strategy of the French and English post-Romantics was to “make it old” rather than to “make it new.” Perhaps because of this regressive strategy, even at the height of the villanelle’s “revival” in the late nineteenth century the form was never particularly important. The French forms were championed in the eighteen-eighties and eighteen-nineties by Gosse, Dobson, Wilde, Stevenson, and Swinburne; Gleeson White’s Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c, first published by W. Scott in London in 1887, went through several British and American printings before the turn of the century. But in those two decades, fewer than two dozen poets attempted the form in French or English, and most of those poets only attempted it once or twice (see Appendix II). Only six of them were French: Banville, Boyer, Boulmier, Rollinat, and Leconte de Lisle. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find another half-dozen poets who have written villanelles in French since then.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As early as 1882, famed poetry scholar George Saintsbury wrote dismissively of the villanelle and other “artificial forms,” but he did claim to defend the old French forms against an even more critical mainstream:
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It has been customary to see in the adoption of these forms a sign of decadence, but this can hardly be sustained in face of the fact that, in Charles d’Orléans and Villon respectively, the Rondel and the Ballade were the occasion of poetry far surpassing in vigour and in grace all preceding work of the kind, and also in presence of the service which the sonnet–a form almost if not quite as artificial–has notoriously done to poetry. (Short History of French Literature 101)
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The prevailing view that Saintsbury describes and partly shares was that the villanelle and the other French forms were emotionally and technically overwrought. What was to Banville and his cohort “ravishing,” “sparkling,” “dainty,” “charming,” “graceful,” and in the best sense “naïve” was to others “artificial,” “trifling,” and “decadent.” The coding of these terms hardly needs to be pointed out; what was often at stake was masculinity itself. The villanelle and the other French forms were not so much feminine as effeminate; they were implicitly associated with homoerotic sexuality. That the villanelle became more successful in Britain than in France was partly due to the additional allure of exoticism. France itself and all things French, of course, overwhelmingly represented to Anglophone culture an effusive polymorphic sexuality that was either frightening or freeing, revolutionary or repugnant, depending.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The villanelle quickly earned a reputation as a second-rate form of poetry, then, perhaps partly as a means of declawing a certain noncompliance to dominant paradigms of masculinity. Yet attempts to write “serious” villanelles date almost from the very beginning of the villanelle’s revival. The first villanelle of that revival, Banville’s “Villanelle de Buloz,” was strictly comic, and limerickishly light villanelles did continue to appear throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and do still). W. E. Henley, in particular, used the villanelle for this effect. Villanelles not in this vein tended to be sentimental, pious, or affected by contemporary standards–but the same thing would have to be said about most poetry “hummed at luncheon parties” between 1880 and 1914. 2 Gosse’s “Wouldst thou not be content to die” looks to us like one such typically sentimental poem, but Gosse perceived the villanelle as a form “more elaborate and serious [than the rondel, rondeau, and triolet], for which a pathetic or passionate rendering seems almost imperative,” and his villanelle adopts pathos as a more serious mode than the epigrammatic or satiric (Plea 64). Edwin Arlington Robinson’s austere “The House on the Hill” dates from 1894, and at that date Robinson already sees himself as rehabilitating the form; Robinson wrote of his attraction to “the suggestiveness of these artificial forms–that is, when they treat of something besides bride-roses and ball-rooms” (qtd. in McFarland 79). Such attempts show that the formalist essentialism that would have kept the villanelle in a gemmed ghetto was never absolute, though it was certainly prevalent; generalizations about the hard-coded semantic meaning of an always re-abstractable abstract form (A’bA” abA’ abA” abA’ abA” abA’A”) were as porous then as they ought to be now.