Lilian Crutchfield, Erica Maria Gregg
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).
[Note: This practice compares to the American blues form.--AR]
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.
A good example of the standard rondeau is the following renowned World War I poem, "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
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.
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.
To read about the inspiration behind this poem, go to: http://home.iae.nl/users/robr/poppies.html
In gathering our information, we used Lewis Turco's The New Book of Forms, Ron Padgett's Handbook of Poetic Forms, Britannica's website (www.britannica.com), Helen Louise Cohen's Lyric Forms from France, The Poems of François Villón, as translated by Galway Kinnell, and The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms, ed. Alex Preminger. Other possibilities for further reading are: Seifert Jaroslav's Mozart in Prague: Thirteen Rondels and Emile Nelligan's collected poetry.