Shell Villanelle

 

I am a snail. This shell is where I hide.

The world is full of danger, threat and spite.

My brittle canopy feels safe inside.

 

My way is slow. A snail’s pace I slide.

I have no speed, no means of sudden flight.

I am a snail. This shell is where I hide.

 

With steady caution through the world I glide.

If shadows loom, or things flash fast and bright,

my brittle canopy feels safe inside.

 

I cannot parry stabbing beaks with pride,

nor wear my armour like a valiant knight.

I am a snail. This shell is where I hide.

 

If jabbing birds should come, all glitter-eyed,

I have no way to stand at bay and fight.

My brittle canopy feels safe inside.

 

But for this case, I’d long ago have died.

And so this spell I steadily recite:

I am a snail. This shell is where I hide.

My brittle canopy feels safe inside.

 

Note   The Villanelle, like a snail’s shell, is made to a very specific pattern. And, in a kind of way, it seems to spiral round, too, growing as it goes. In the first 3 line verse the 1st & 3rd lines are set down. They then alternate as the final line of the next four verses. The very last (and 6th) verse is four lines instead of three, with those two repeated lines becoming a final couplet to the verse and to the poem itself. While the first and third lines of the first verse rhyme with each other, and with the first lines of all the other verses, the second line of the first verse must rhyme with the second lines of all the other verses throughout. It’s a simple pattern really but just sounds complicated when written down like that. Try the instructions against the poem and see the rhyme pattern for yourself.

 

I love the way that ‘Shell’ rhymes with ‘Villanelle’. I also like how the Villanelle pattern suggests the structure of a snail shell itself with its spiralling, accumulating rhymes. And Villa, of course, means ‘house’, and a snail’s shell is its house. Do I dare mention that the “nelle” in Villanelle puns with the word ‘knell’, the ringing of the church bell when someone has died, and making me think of how a snail is doomed once the thrush arrives? Against the thrush’s beak the snail’s shell is no protection. Poets really do often think about words in these intricate ways, just like painters think about the paint they’re working with, or composers about the quality of the sounds they’re evoking.

 

This poem can also be found in my children's collection 'Come Into This Poem' (pub Frances Lincoln 2011).