Refrain Definition

Refrain is a verse, a line, a set, or a group of some lines that appears at the end of stanza, or appears where a poem divides into different sections. It has originated from France, where it is popular as, refraindre, means to repeat. Refrain is a poetic device that repeats at regular intervals in different stanzas. However, sometimes, this repetition may involve only minor changes in its wording. It also contributes to the rhyme of a poem and emphasizes an idea through repetition.

Difference between Refrain, Repetition and Villanelle

Refrain is a type of repetition, but it is somewhat different from repetition. Refrain is repetition of usually a line, a phrase, two or three lines, or even words in a poem but repetition, on the other hand, involves repetition of words, phrases, syllables, or even sounds in a full piece. Another difference is that a refrain in a poem may appear at the end of a stanza; however, this recurrence of words and phrases in repetition may occur in any line of stanza. Villanelle, on the contrary, is a poetic form consisting of nineteen lines that uses refrain in its first and third lines.

Examples of Refrain in Literature

Example 1

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster…

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 (One Art by Elizabeth Bishop)

In this example, the poet has repeatedly used refraining line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” throughout the poem. This refraining line is creating rhythm as well as emphasizing the idea. Notice that this line, though, varies slightly in the final stanza, yet is still considered to be a refrain.

Example 2

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know…

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee…

(Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe)

The poet is using refraining line “In a kingdom by the sea.” This appears in the second line of each stanza, and recurs in the final line of the third stanza that draws readers’ attention and contributes to its meter and rhythm.

Example 3

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light…
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas)

This is very a famous poem using two refrains; one comes in the first line “Do not go gentle into that good night,”; while second comes in the third line of each stanza. These refrains make the poem catchy and easy to remember.

Example 4

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

(Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost)

Frost has used refrain in only last stanza that he repeats twice as “And miles to go before I sleep.” It gives rhythm to the poem and lay emphasis on this idea of doing many things before dying.

Function of Refrain

Refrain is purely a poetic device, and the most important function that a refrain may serve in the poetry is to lay emphasis and create rhythm. When a line or phrase recurs in a poem, or a piece of literature, it becomes noticeable to the readers. By using refrain, the poets can make their ideas memorable and draw the attention of the readers towards a certain idea, because using a single line recurrently throughout a poetic work allows the readers to take a pause each time by confronting such repetition. In addition, refrain naturally creates rhythm.

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