Villanelle for Our Time

From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.

This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.

We loved the easy and the smart,
But now with keener hand and brain
We rise to play a greater part.

The lesser loyalties depart
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.

Not steering by the venal chart
that tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.

Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.

 – Frank Scott
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Many of you will recognize this as a Leonard Cohen song (on the album Dear Heather) and probably thought, as I did, they were his lyrics.  Not so.

Frank Scott was quite a fellow – a Canadian poet and activist, socialist, later a lawyer and McGill University Dean, a translator and advocate for bi-lingualism/bi-culturalism.   Of particular interest, in this four-year 100th anniversary of WW I, he had a part in the 1917 Conscription Crisis.  War AntiwarMusic
The initial crew of enthusiastic young Canadian soldiers had been greatly diminished by the war and, especially after the Battle of the Somme (June-Nov 1916) enthusiasm grew markedly less.   Conscription was proposed – and trouble followed.

Here’s a glowing obituary of Scott in 1985.

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The Villanelle is an old French form that consists of 5 tercets followed by a quatrain. The poem contains two rhyme sounds throughout and two alternating refrains. The structure looks like this:

[1a, b, 2a] [a, b, 1a] [a, b, 2a ] [a, b, 1a] [a, b, 2a] [a, b, 1a, 2a]

The most famous villanelle in English is Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Here are some more to enjoy, and fix it in your mind. PoemGeek

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