What is a Refrain in Poems? A Guide and Top 8 Examples

Refrain in poems creates rhythm and emphasis. Learn more about what is a refrain in poems and see typical examples of this literary device.

Poems are set apart into lines or groups of lines that create the cadence and rhythm of the piece. A poem refrain is a verse, line, set, or group that appears at the end of a stanza. This literary device is similar to the chorus in a song, and it repeats at regular intervals throughout the poem.

The Definition of Refrain in Poems

The word refrain comes from the French word refraindre. This word means “to repeat.” The dictionary has several definitions of refrain, but it defines a refrain in poems as “A regularly recurring phrase or verse, especially at the end of each stanza or division of a poem or song.”

The refrain is commonly seen in the chorus of many songs in today’s popular music. The chorus is often called the “refrain” as a result. However, you can also see refrain in poems when you know where to look. Sometimes in poetry, refrains are not the repetition of a complete line. Instead, it may be just the repetition of a single word or pair of words. This literary term is somewhat ambiguous because it can take several different forms, but if a poem contains repetition, it likely contains an example of a refrain. The purpose of refrain is to create rhythm and emphasize a thought or idea in the poem.

Poetic Forms That Contain Refrains

Many poetic forms use refrains to create their cadence and rhythm. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Ballad: The ballad is a poem that tells a story. These often were set to music when they were first used. Most English language ballads have a four-line stanza with the ABCB rhyme scheme. Ballads may have a refrain after each of the poem’s stanzas, though this is not a requirement for the poetic form.
  • Villanelle: The villanelle features five tercets and a four-line quatrain. This poem uses the refrain by repeating the first and third lines of the first tercet as the final line of the following tercets. These lines also become the final line of the ending quatrain.
  • Sestina: The sestina has six-line sestets and a three-line tercet. It does not contain a conventional refrain. However, many words end up repeated throughout the poem, so this can make it appear like it is a refrain, and some believe it is a form of refrain because of the repetition of words.
  • Ballade: The ballade is a lyric poem that comes from France. These typically have eight-line stanzas followed by four-line stanzas. The last line of each stanza gets repeated, making it a refrain. This refrain has a unique name, the envoi.

Refrains can also appear in other types of poems that do not follow one of these forms.

8 Examples of Refrains from Classic Poems

Several well-loved poems have clear examples of refrains. Here are some of them.

1. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

Examples of Refrains in Poems: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
Unknown authorUnknown author at the source., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a poem that shows how easy it is to use a refrain. In this famous poem, frost uses this poetic device by repeating one line for emphasis. This repetition is considered a refrain, even though it only repeats one line:

“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.”

2. “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe

Sometimes, the refrain is just repeated words, not repeated lines. In “Annabel Lee,” Poe repeats the name of the maiden multiple times throughout the poem. In the last stanza, he repeats the line “Of the beautiful Annabel Lee,” making this an example of a refrain. This poem is an example of a ballad because it is a lost love narrative tale.

“For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;”

3. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a villanelle, as the first line, “Do not go gentle into that good night, “ ends the second and fourth stanzas, and the third line, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,“ ends the third and fourth stanzas. You can also see these refrains repeated as the final two lines of the ending quatrain.

“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.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.”

4. “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

In “One Art,” Bishop also uses the villanelle poetic device. However, it is not a perfect villanelle because the poem’s third line is not repeated fully. Instead, it just uses the repeated word “disaster.”

“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.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.”

5. “A Miracle for Breakfast” by Elizabeth Bishop

A Miracle for Breakfast“ is a sestina by Bishop that does not repeat any one line but words. Each stanza has lines that end in the words “coffee,” “crumb,” “balcony,” “miracle,” “sun,” and “river.” Bishop changes the order of these ending words, but she is consistent in her repetition.

“At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
–like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.”

6. “Ballade of the Book-Worm” by Andrew Lang

Examples of Refrains in Poems: “Ballade of the Book-Worm” by Andrew Lang
Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ballade of the Book-Worm” is an example of a ballade. In this poem, Lang exudes his love for his childhood books. The final line of each stanza is “The Books I loved; I love them still!” for a joyous refrain.

“Far in the Past I peer, and see
A Child upon the Nursery floor,
A Child with books upon his knee,
Who asks, like Oliver, for more!
The number of his years is IV,
And yet in Letters hath he skill,
How deep he dives in Fairy-lore!
The Books I loved, I love them still!”

7. “Excelsior” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In “Excelsior,” Longfellow repeats the word “Excelsior!” throughout the poem. It draws the reader’s attention and helps create the rhythm of the work. Thus, it is considered a refrain.

“The shades of night were falling fast…
A banner with the strange device,
Excelsior!

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay…
A voice fell like a falling star,
Excelsior!”

8. “O Captain! My Captain” by Walt Whitman

In his ode to Abraham Lincoln, Whitman repeats many words and phrases throughout each line. These are often considered refrain. In this short couplet from ”O Captain, My Captain,” he repeats “captain,” “rise up” and “for you,” for example.

“O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up — for you the flag is flung — for you the bugle trills…”
Interested in learning more? Check out round round-up of the best essays about poetry!

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