Virelai Poetry Form: Narrate Your Adventures

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Here’s what the Virelai poetry type is:

Virelai is one of the three formes fixes and is a type of formal poem from medieval France.

It thrives on short lines, a focus on rhyme, and is written entirely in nonets (nine-line verses).

Note that the song and poem forms are related but slightly different.

This article focuses only on the poem form.

So if you want to learn all about the Virelai poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s jump right in!

Virelai Poem Type (Simply Explained & Examples)

Forms of Poetry: The Virelai

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The virelai comes to us from France, from around the 13th-14th century.

It typically stands as a narrative form, written in nine-line stanzas (nonets), with precise syllable counts and rhyme scheme.

It is a member of the “lai” family of forms and is itself an expanded form of the preexisting lai.

A virelai with only one verse is known as a bergerette.

The cousins of the form within the lai family include the lai nouveau, lai ancien, and the kyrielle.

The virelai is considered one of the formes fixes which were popularly used in music in 14th-15th century France, with its contemporaries being the ballade and the rondeau, each of which is a member of its own extended family of poems.

Like many European poem forms, it should be noted that the virelai started its life as a song form.

As such the way a virelai sounds should be considered just as important as its meaning when writing or reading the poem.

Basic Properties of the Virelai

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Rhyme StructureStrict
OriginFrance, roughly the 13th-14th century
PopularityWidely popular due to its time as one of the formes fixes
ThemeUsually narrative

How Is a Virelai Structured?

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Each verse of a virelai is nine lines (a nonet).

It is typically not called a virelai if it is only one verse, since that would be either a bergerette or a lai (depending on the structure).

These verses have syllable counts of 5-5-2-5-5-2-5-5-2. The easy way to remember this is that every third line is shorter.

Take note that the syllables are counted rather than metered so there is no need to bring iambs, trochees, and so on into this discussion.

The virelai’s rhyme scheme also reflects the units-of-three design. The internal rhyme scheme of each verse is aabaabaab.

It is customary to have the rhymes connect cross-stanza from one stanza to the next, but there have been variations, as with any old form.

Typically, though, the scheme will continue as bbcbbcbbc, ccdccdccd, etc, until the final line.

The short-line end rhyme of the final verse should then match the long-line end rhyme in the opening verse.

This brings the rhyme scheme full circle on the final line.

A virelai is usually a narrative poem, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be.

This is just the trend, so it’s not as set in stone as the other attributes of the form.

Example of a Virelai

a beautiful brunette woman in a red summer dress on the street

She looks full of glee
but I’ll wait to see
her grin.
If it’s not for me
then we shall not be
For I paid the fee
the last time that we
did sin.

Take love for a spin.
Maybe even win.
But wait.
Don’t sink too far in,
steeped in scent of gin.
Your fate
will seem awful thin
if your hopes are pinned
on dates.

Watch for a bad trait.
Don’t ask about weight.
lovers may stay up late.
Know at any rate
that she
may just clean her plate,
thank you for the date,
and flee.

The above example is a fairly simple three-verse virelai.

The form isn’t especially complicated, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with its own unique challenges.

For now, simply take note of how the syllable counts and rhyme sounds are handled.

A proper virelai tries to close out the poem by coming full circle in the rhyme scheme and remaining as faithful to the structure as possible.

Even deviating by one syllable should only be done after extensive thought as to whether or not that deviation is fully and completely justified since purists will not hesitate to point out any stray syllables.

Slant rhyme and repetition are a bit more excusable in the virelai than in some other forms since the form does repeat rhyme sounds more than is typically comfortable in English.

Still, do try to prioritize true rhyme and new end words where applicable.

Don’t go so far as adding obscure clearly out-of-place words to the poem just for the sake of rhyme but do think seriously about whether or not you really need to repeat a word before you do it.

Tips for Writing a Virelai

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While the form may look bubbly and fun on the surface, it really does have a sinister side to it that you’ll only understand once you put your fingers on the keyboard (or pen to paper).

Each line of a virelai gives you very little room to work with.

Setting up the next end rhyme with only five syllables of wiggle room is extremely uncomfortable, but then the poem demands that you go even more extreme with the two-syllable lines.

This means that mastery of short, sharp words is an absolute must.

You need to be able to form concrete images and thoughts without relying on any flowery advanced language.

This is a form that would come naturally to Robert Frost but be virtually impossible for Edgar Allan Poe, and that’s okay.

Different poets have different strengths.

On top of that, the form expects you to use a single end sound far more times than feels natural in English poetry.

Each end sound will be used on a total of nine lines, making it incredibly difficult to write a virelai that doesn’t employ at least some repetition or slant rhyme, though I certainly challenge the most ambitious among you to go for it.

You will know if you were successful in following the basic standards when you read the poem out loud.

Any out-of-place syllables or rhymes will strike your ears as clearly as day, so it won’t be especially hard to find those mistakes.

The real challenge, however, is to make the virelai sound as natural as possible.

One of the biggest criticisms that free verse lovers have of formal poetry is that the poems often come out feeling forced and artificial.

Ideally, your poem will flow naturally as if it rolled right off the tongue fully formed in the vernacular.

Unfortunately, this is one form that will test the limits of your patience, so putting up with all its demands and then making the poem feel organic on top of that will be a tall task.

Overall, despite its simple look and feel, I would qualify this as an advanced form, though it isn’t the hardest one out there.

Not great for teaching children how to write poetry, but ideal for college-level courses.

Poet’s Note


I should come clean and admit that I don’t even like well-written virelai.

There’s something about short, rhymed lines that turns me off.

They’re too…bouncy?

Nonetheless, I can appreciate the form from an architectural and aesthetic perspective.

It just isn’t for me personally.

So if any of my descriptions sounded a little discouraging, I’ll admit to a touch of personal bias.

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