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The Best Rondels and Roundels of All Time

The roundel is a fairly recent English poetic form created by the Romantic poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909). The English roundel is based on the French rondeau.

The English rondel is a much older poetic form, also based on the French rondeau, which dates back to the 14th century.

The French terms rondeau, rondeaux and rondelet and the English terms rondel, roundel and roundelay are all related to the Middle English and Anglo-French root word rund or reund, meaning "round" or "rotund." Something that is round circles back on itself. Song that are sung in rounds often repeat multiple refrains. Refrains are the most distinctive feature of the poetic forms in question. Because there are multiple variations of each named poetic form, it may be helpful to generalize and say that a rondel/roundel/roundelay is a short rhyming poem with a refrain, as in this lovely example and exemplar:

Rondel
by Kevin N. Roberts

Our time has passed on swift and careless feet,  [A]
With sighs and smiles and songs both sad and sweet.
Our perfect hours have grown and gone so fast,
And these are things we never can repeat.
Though we might plead and pray that it would last,
Our time has passed.                                         [A]

Like shreds of mist entangled in a tree,
Like surf and sea foam on a foaming sea,
Like all good things we know can never last,
Too soon we'll see the end of you and me.
Despite the days and realms that we amassed,
Our time has passed.                                         [A]

In the example above, the phrase "Our time has passed" begins the first line of the poem and is repeated at the end of each stanza. In this poem and the ones below, I have used italics to identify the refrain. I have also used the line-end tag [A] for the first refrain, [B] for the second, and so on.

History of the early Rondel

The rondeau derived from two main sources: the rondel, a short poem with repeating lines; and the rondeaux, courtly songs that, with their catchy and memorable rentrement (refrains), were like pop hits in 14th and 15th century France.

The English rondel is a verse form that originated from French lyrical poetry. It is a variation of the rondeau typically consisting of two quatrains followed by a quintet (13 lines total) or a sestet (14 lines total). In some versions of the rondel, there is only one repeating line. In other versions, there are two or more repeated lines or phrases.

Here are three early examples. The first example shows how the repetition of refrains was being developed before the later forms appeared.

Untitled
by an anonymous poet, probably female (12th century)

I walk in loneliness through the greenwood  [A]
for I have none to go with me.                     [B]
Since I have lost my friend by not being good
I walk in loneliness through the greenwood. [A]
I’ll send him word and make it understood
that I will be good company.
I walk in loneliness through the greenwood  [A]
for I have none to go with me.                     [B]

Rondel of Merciless Beauty
by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly; [A]
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene; [B]
Straight through my heart the wound is quick and keen. [C]

Only your word will heal the injury
To my hurt heart, while yet the wound is clean—
Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly; [A]
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene. [B]

Upon my word, I tell you faithfully
Through life and after death you are my queen;
For with my death the whole truth shall be seen.
Your two great eyes will slay me suddenly; [A]
Their beauty shakes me who was once serene; [B]
Straight through my heart the wound is quick and keen. [C]

Rondel
Charles D'Orleans (1391-1465)

Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart,  [A]
And with some store of pleasure give me aid, [B]
For jealousy, with all them of his part,
Strong siege about the weary tower has laid.
Nay, if to break his bands thou art afraid,
Too weak to make his cruel force depart,
Strengthen at least this castle of my heart,       [A]
And with some store of pleasure give me aid. [B]
Nay, let not jealousy, for all his art
Be master, and the tower in ruin laid,
That still, ah, Love, thy gracious rule obeyed.
Advance, and give me succor of my part;
Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart.  [A]

Algernon Charles Swinburne published a book, A Century of Roundels, which he dedicated to his friend the poet Christina Rossetti, who then started writing similar poems herself, as evidenced by the following examples from her poetry: “Wife to Husband,” “A Better Resurrection,” “A Life's Parallels,” “Today For Me,” “It Is Finished” and “From Metastasio.”

Swinburne's roundel form consists of nine lines each having the same number of syllables, plus a refrain after the third line and after the last line. The refrain must be identical with the beginning of the first line: it may be a half-line, and rhymes with the second line. Swinburne’s first roundel was called "The Roundel":

The Roundel
by Algernon Charles Swinburne

A roundel is wrought as a ring or a starbright sphere, [A]
With craft of delight and with cunning of sound unsought,
That the heart of the hearer may smile if to pleasure his ear
A roundel is wrought.                                                [A]

Its jewel of music is carven of all or of aught—
Love, laughter, or mourning—remembrance of rapture or fear—
That fancy may fashion to hang in the ear of thought.

As a bird's quick song runs round, and the hearts in us hear
Pause answer to pause, and again the same strain caught,
So moves the device whence, round as a pearl or tear,
A roundel is wrought.                                                [A]

Here is the roundel Swinburne dedicated to his fellow Romantic poet Christian Rossetti:

Dedication to Christiana G. Rossetti
by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Songs light as these may sound, though deep and strong [A]
The heart spake through them, scarce should hope to please
Ears tuned to strains of loftier thoughts than throng
Songs light as these.                                                       [A]

Yet grace may set their sometime doubt at ease,
Nor need their too rash reverence fear to wrong
The shrine it serves at and the hope it sees.

For childlike loves and laughters thence prolong
Notes that bid enter, fearless as the breeze,
Even to the shrine of holiest-hearted song,
Songs light as these.                                                       [A]

There are several variations of the rondel, and some inconsistencies. For example, sometimes only the first line of the poem is repeated at the end; or: the second refrain may return at the end of last stanza. Henry Austin Dobson provides the following example of a rondel:

Love comes back to his vacant dwelling, [A]
The old, old Love that we knew of yore!
We see him stand by the open door,
With his great eyes sad, and his bosom swelling.

He makes as though in our arms repelling
He fain would lie as he lay before;
Love comes back to his vacant dwelling, [A]
The old, old Love that we knew of yore!

Ah! who shall help us from over-spelling
That sweet, forgotten, forbidden lore?
E'en as we doubt, in our hearts once more,
With a rush of tears to our eyelids welling,
Love comes back to his vacant dwelling. [A]

An modern example is "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar:

We Wear the Mask
by Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies, [A]
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.                            [A]

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!                            [A]

Perhaps the best-known rondeau is the World War I poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae:

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow [A]
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.                         [A]

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.                          [A]

Rondeau redoublé

A more complex form is the rondeau redoublé. This is also written on two rhymes, but in five stanzas of four lines each and one of five lines. Each of the first four lines (stanza 1) get individually repeated in turn once by becoming successively the respective fourth lines of stanzas 2, 3, 4, & 5; and the first part of the first line is repeated as a short fifth line to conclude the sixth stanza. This can be represented as—A1,B1,A2,B2—b,a,b,A1—a,b,a,B1—b,a,b,A2—a,b,a,B2—b,a,b,a,(A1).

The following example of the form was written from the point of view of one of the RAF officers carrying the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales to the plane that was to carry it to England.

Guard of Honour
by Paul Hansford

The burden I bear is more heavy than lead.           [A1]
The physical weight is a thing that I share,             [B1]
but the loss that I feel will not leave my head.        [A2]
Why did you have to die? Why is death so unfair? [B2]

I am close to you now. Yes, touching my hair
the flag with its lions of gold and of red
that wraps round your coffin. I know you are there.
The burden I bear is more heavy than lead.           [A1]

My comrades move with me in slow, solemn tread.
Our eyes are all fixed in an unseeing stare.
Our shoulders support you in your oaken bed.
The physical weight is a thing that I share.             [B1]

As I feel the world watching I try not to care.
My deepest emotions are best left unsaid.
Let others show grief like a garment they wear,
but the loss that I feel will not leave my head.        [A2]

The flowers they leave like a carpet are spread,
In the books of remembrance they have written, "Somewhere
a star is extinguished because you are dead.
Why did you have to die? Why is death so unfair?" [B2]

The tears that we weep will soon grow more rare,
the rawness of grief turn to memory instead.
But deep in our hearts you will always be there,
and I ask, will I ever be able to shed
the burden I bear?                                                 [A1]

Two Preludes
by Algernon Charles Swinburne

I. Lohengrin

Love, out of the depth of things,    [A]
As a dewfall felt from above,
From the heaven whence only springs
Love,                                           [A]

Love, heard from the heights thereof,
The clouds and the watersprings,
Draws close as the clouds remove.

And the soul in it speaks and sings,
A swan sweet-souled as a dove,
An echo that only rings
Love.                                           [A]

II. Tristran und Isolde

Fate, out of the deep sea's gloom, [A]
When a man's heart's pride grows great,
And nought seems now to foredoom
Fate,                                            [A]

Fate, laden with fears in wait,
Draws close through the clouds that loom,
Till the soul see, all too late,

More dark than a dead world's tomb,
More high than the sheer dawn's gate,
More deep than the wide sea's womb,
Fate.                                             [A]

Sleeping at Last
by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over, [A]
Sleeping at last, the struggle and horror past,
Cold and white, out of sight of friend and of lover,
Sleeping at last.                                           [A]

No more a tired heart downcast or overcast,
No more pangs that wring or shifting fears that hover,
Sleeping at last in a dreamless sleep locked fast.

Fast asleep. Singing birds in their leafy cover
Cannot wake her, nor shake her the gusty blast.
Under the purple thyme and the purple clover
Sleeping at last.                                           [A]

It Is Too Late
by Kevin N. Roberts

It is too late. Though we would reinspire    [A]
Our dream, rewake a dead desire,
A dismal sea divides our sighs and smiles;
Between us now so many months and miles
And tears for all things torn away by time,
For faded flowers grown pale and past their prime.
And no sweet words can make sick joys revive,
no mystic kiss keeps loves long dead alive.
What mortal hand can stay the hand of fate?
It is too late.                                               [A]

The first line of Christina Rossetti's "A Better Resurrection" ends: "no wit, no words, no tears." These words, which place immediate importance on negative imagery, allude to the absence of intelligence, language and emotion in her life. The three-stanza poem, using the rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD, takes the form of a comparison of the artist's life to fading fall leaves and to a broken bowl unfit to hold water. The poem is both religious, using an Easter theme, and lyric, in the sense that it expresses direct intense personal emotion in a manner suggestive of song (Merriam Webster). The unifying theme of the poem repeats three times in the last line of each stanza with Rossetti's cry for Jesus to quicken, rise, and drink of her. She describes her life as wilted, barren, perishable, and meaningless; a mere husk compared to a full harvest. The themes of emptiness, solitude, death, triumph of fall over spring and the Bible reference "I lift mine eyes" all relate to the title of the poem and culminate in a cry for a different, better kind of resurrection.

A Better Resurrection
by Christina Georgina Rossetti

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears.
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me. [A]

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of spring;
O Jesus, rise in me. [A]

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perished thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me [A]

A Life's Parallels
by Christina Rossetti

Never on this side of the grave again,      [A]
On this side of the river,
On this side of the garner of the grain,
Never,—                                               [A]

Ever while time flows on and on and on, [A]
That narrow noiseless river,
Ever while corn bows heavy-headed, wan,
Ever—                                                  [A]

Never despairing, often fainting, rueing,   [A]
But looking back, ah never!
Faint yet pursuing, faint yet still pursuing,
Ever.                                                     [A]

First Footsteps
by Algernon Charles Swinburne

A little way, more soft and sweet  [A]
Than fields a-flower with May,
A babe's feet, venturing, scarce complete
A little way.                                  [A]

Eyes full of dawning day
Look up for mother's eyes to meet,
Too blithe for song to say.

Glad as the golden spring to greet
Its first live leaflet's play,
Love, laughing, leads the little feet
A little way.                                  [A]

Rondeaux are French lyric poems coming from the same fourteenth and fifteenth century formal tradition as the earlier rondel and triolet—in fact, the three forms are sometimes considered variations of the same genre. This genre of fixed-form poetry is powered by strict repetition, both through its reliance on only a two-word pattern of rhyme and through its use of the rentrement—the reentry of the poem's opening words—as a refrain.

The rondeau first developed as a form of medieval courtly music. One of the earliest writer-composers of rondeaux was Guillaume de Machaut. (To hear Machaut's rondeau, "Rose, liz, printemps" being sung by Lionheart, click here, or visit http://www.chantboy.com/lionheart/machaut.htm )

As song, the form was four stanzas with fully repeating refrains, making use of much more repetition than the modern literary rondeau or its variants. The earliest sung rondeaux developed in the thirteenth century and became well known through the compositions of Adam de la Halle, the "hunchback poet," who served as court poet and musician to the Count d'Artois.

The rondeau, adopted by church musicians as an emotionally rich container, continued into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Not only for spiritual worship, the rondeau was also used for devotion to secular subjects such as springtime, courtly love, and romance. Oddly, the form also clearly offered a vehicle for the celebration of melancholy. Many rondeaux seem to be about pain and loss; yet they turn by the last stanza to a light, almost jovial statement of c'est la vie! (Only the English, who adopted the rondeau at the end of the eighteenth century, truly attempt serious verse with this form—according to The Princeton Handbook).

The standard literary rondeau is usually found as fifteen octo- or decasyllabic lines divided into three stanzas, a quintet, quatrain and sestet. The refrain consists of the first few words of the first line of the first stanza. The rentrement, or refrain, ends the second and third stanzas, serving as their last lines. Only two rhymes are used throughout (Turco). The rhyme scheme is as follows: aabba aabR aabbaR.

According to Helen Louise Cohen in her book, Lyric Forms from France, the refrains became shorter from the mid-fifteenth century most likely because of the scribes' practice of not writing out the full refrain of one or two lines in subsequent stanzas. Eventually, the readers forgot the shortening of the lines was an abbreviation.

To hear some of Guillaume de Machaut's work, along with further discussion and illustration, visit http://www.chantboy.com/lionheart/machaut.htm.

This practice seems to be illustrated in the following segment of "The Testament" by the fifteenth century poet, François Villón (as translated by Galway Kinnell):

Death I appeal your harshness
Having robbed me of my mistress
You remain unsatisfied
Waiting for me to languish too
Since then I've had no strength or vigor
But in her life how did she offend you?
Death etc.

We were two, we had but one heart
Since it is dead then I must die
Yes or live without life
As images do, by heart
Death, etc.

With only the first few words of the opening line now used as rentrement, this form allowed for new angles of meaning to be possible in the refrain, and depending on its context. The evolution of the shortened refrain has continued into modern rondeau such as Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" and Marilyn Hacker's "Rondeau After a Transatlantic Telephone Call."

Rondeau After a Transatlantic Telephone Call
by Marilyn Hacker

Love, it was good to talk to you tonight.
You lather me like summer though. I light
up, sip smoke. Insistent through walls comes
the downstairs neighbor’s double-bass. It thrums
like toothache. I will shower away the sweat,

smoke, summer, sound. Slick, soapy, dripping wet,
I scrub the sharp edge off my appetite.
I want: crisp toast, cold wine prickling my gums,
love. It was good

imagining around your voice, you, late-
awake there. (It isn’t midnight yet
here.) This last glass washes down the crumbs.
I wish that I could lie down in your arms
and, turned toward sleep there (later), say, “Goodnight,
love, It was good.”

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