This poem is in the form of a villanelle, a French verse form derived from an Italian folk song of the late 15th-early 17th Centuries. Originally reserved for pastoral subjects, modern poets from W. H. Auden ("Time Will Say Nothing") to Dylan Thomas (Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night) have employed it for more somber subjects.

The strict definition of a villanelle adheres to the following pattern: five tercets followed by a quatrain with the rhyming scheme of a1ba2 aba1 aba2 aba1 aba2 aba1a2. Williams's "Villanelle," like Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," obeys this convention while relating a bereaved, haunted mother's lament over her dead daughter.


This is a very moving poem, especially when read aloud, as I had the good fortune to hear Williams himself do. The technical demands of the verse form lend themselves to the repetitive nature of grief-work and the mother's attempt, through soliloquy, to exorcise the memory of her daughter's apparently hopeless depression and suicide. The mother seems to hover between guilt and understanding, although the senselessness of such depression and the powerlessness of a mother's love to prevent this tragedy pervade the entire villanelle.

Primary Source

The Vigil


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York