Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

David J. Smith


This work debunks the myth of the villanelle as a "fixed poetic form" dating back to the sixteenth century or earlier and replaces it with a new-historical account of how a semi-improvisatory musico-poetic genre, the choral-dance lyric, was "translated" across ruptures in lyric technology between oral, manuscript, and print cultures. The "fixity" of the villanelle's written form is shown to be not a matter of long-standing "heritage" or "tradition," but the result of deliberate actions taken by one eighteenth- and one nineteenth-century individual who inserted less-than-truthful passages into otherwise "authoritative" prosodic treatises. Chapter 1 identifies the literary sources responsible for the construction of a false villanelle "history" and "tradition" and discusses how belief in such a tradition influences and empowers both poets and critics. Beginning with medieval verse forms, Chapter 2 discusses the musical and poetic features that distinguish semi-improvised choral-dance lyrics from text-based vocal lyrics, with particular attention to the role of women in the generation and transmission of choral-dance lyrics. The third chapter describes the musical and poetic styles of the sixteenth-century Italian musical villanella, representing a conscious imitation by courtly composers of semi-improvised refrain songs from the oral tradition; it also contrasts the villanella with the more "literary" madrigal. In Chapter 4, all known "poetic" villanelles and allusions to the villanelle are examined for evidence of a "poetic" or "fixed poetic" form in sixteenth-century France. The fifth chapter examines the influence of the musical villanella upon sixteenth-century English poets, particularly Philip Sidney. Chapter 6 traces the step-by-step process by which the villanelle's poetic form came to be "fixed" between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. In conclusion, Chapter 7 examines the paradox by which a "genuine" hundred-fifty-year-old fixed-form villanelle tradition that is still generating exciting poems has come to be erected upon the foundations of a false five-hundred-year-old one, and demonstrates how twentieth-century villanelles that are said to "rebel against" traditional villanelle constraints are actually consistent with the villanelle's semi-improvised, multiform origins.