Thematically, the rondeau was a melancholy song which dealt with courtship woes, the changing of seasons, spiritual worship, and any other kind of intense emotion. You could say bittersweet longing often characterized these songs. Here is an example of a 14th c. rondel (the predecessor to the rondeau) which captures such longing:
Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart,
And with some store of pleasure give me aid,
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,
And with some store of pleasure give me aid.
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.
Yet, it doesn’t bode well to be sad all the time, so the last stanza often flipped the script, leaving the reader with a more upbeat — c’est la vie! — Ah, such-is-life, kind of ending. A modern rondeau can be playful, nonsensical, bleak, or whatever strikes your fancy. One famous rondeau by Frank O’Hara begins with a mysterious directive: “Door of America, mention my fear to the cigars.”
Let’s recall the structure of the rondeau: Fifteen lines broken into three stanzas — a quintet (five lines), a quatrain (four lines), and a sestet (six lines). The rondeau is characterized by repeating lines of the refrain and the two rhyme sounds throughout. The refrain is a recurring phrase (words or tones) in a musical work. In a rondeau, we see the refrain appear three times. It’s all or part of the first line of the poem, and then it is the last line of the second and third stanzas. Take another look at Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask” above to see how he arranged the refrain as part of the first line.
The rhyme: aabba-aabR-aabbaR
Try a Rondeau
Now that you’re getting the hang of its structure, write a thoroughly modern — cheerful or nonsensical rondeau.
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here is a rondeau from Rick we enjoyed: