The definition of refrain (ree-FRAYN) varies from source to source and in specific contexts, such as written poetry or song lyrics. In poetry, a refrain is something that is repeated in a poem, whether it’s a single word, a phrase, a line, or a group of lines. The repetition often occurs at the end of a stanza (a standardized grouping of lines) or strophe (a group of lines unrestricted by consistency). A poem can have several refrains, and the words in the refrain can vary between repetitions (typically the case with a villanelle, for example).
To some sources, however, a song’s chorus can be considered a type of refrain. The chorus, much like a poetic refrain, is a repeated verse. However, songs can have refrains that exist separately from the chorus. Because song lyrics are accompanied by music, the chorus or refrain often has its own music that is only played during that section of the song.
Poetic Forms that Rely on Refrains
In poetry, there are a handful of forms that utilize this literary device.
- A villanelle is a poem comprised of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a final quatrain (four-line stanza). The first tercet’s first and third lines become refrains throughout the villanelle. Each one alternately appears as the following tercets’ third lines. They also become the last two lines in the concluding quatrain. Mary Jo Salter’s “Video Blues” is an example of a villanelle. The first and third lines of the opening tercet—“My husband has a crush on Myrna Loy” and “It makes some evenings harder to enjoy,” respectively—act as the refrains.
- The seven-stanza, 39-line sestina is an example of using single words as a refrain. Sestinas take the end word from the first stanza’s last line and repeats it five more times throughout the poem. In Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte,” rejoicing is the last word of the first stanza and can be found in the next five stanzas.
- A pantoum doesn’t have a distinct refrain because all the lines in a pantoum are repeated. As such, the form can be considered a refrain (or several refrains) in and of itself. Consider Another Lullaby for Insomniacs by A.E. Stallings, where each line appears twice in the poem.
The Effect of a Refrain
Before poetry was printed, it was performed—often sung. Repeating words or lines at regular intervals helped poets memorize their work, as well as help another performer learn it. This built-in memorization technique is why poetry that predates the printed word has been able to endure.
Refrains are still prevalent, especially in popular music, because of their ability to create a sense of connection. This literary device can connect a reader or listener to the rhythm of the piece because it stands out. Audiences are more apt to learn a repeated group of words because it will more than likely to stick in their minds. This recognition makes readers and listeners more likely to revisit the piece.
Literary Elements Related to Refrain
The refrain is not the only literary device that employs repetition—for example, alliteration makes use of repeated sounds. The following literary elements and devices make use of repeated words for various effects.
- An anaphora is a word or phrase repeated at the beginning of subsequent lines or sentences. It often creates emphasis in a poem or a speech; as such, political figures often use anaphora. Examples include Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight” speech.
- An epistrophe is like an anaphora, except its repeated words appear at the end of lines or sentences. President Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech is an example of this.
- A repetend is a word or phrase repeated throughout a poem or other work. Consider Jose Olivarez’s prose poem “Ars Poetica.” Some form of the word migration appears six times, and the phrase My work appears five times. Olivarez uses these repetends to express his frustration with not feeling welcome anywhere and how he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands.
Refrains and Choruses in Song Lyrics
As mentioned, refrains often appear in songs. Usually, it’s in the form of a chorus, which is a repeated verse that appears between unique verses. Song refrains can also exist independently of the chorus. In this case, they tend to be shorter verses that appear before or after the chorus or at the song’s end.
Examples of Song Refrains
1. Marvin Gaye, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”
This song has no chorus, but each of the four verses begins with the line “Mercy, mercy me.” The lyrics lament the negative effects of capitalism on the planet. By repeatedly singing “Mercy, mercy me,” Gaye expresses feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
2. Minnie Riperton, “Lovin’ You”
This song can be considered to have both a refrain and a chorus. The chorus transcends words, celebrating love’s sweet simplicity with onomatopoetic vocalizations—“la-la-las” and “do-dos.” Meanwhile, the song employs a repetend; the phrase “lovin’ you” is repeated 10 times in the short song, expressing the heady joy that comes with pure infatuation.
3. Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”
This song makes use of multiple refrains. A lamentation on the hollowness and insincerity of a consumeristic world, the refrain changes from “It wears her out” to “It wears him out” to “It wears me out.” Each line is repeated four times, showcasing how these feelings eventually take a toll on everyone.
Examples of Song Choruses
1. Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time”
The song’s narrator addresses an estranged lover or friend. The lyrics of the chorus express that the narrator misses this person but, more so, they can always count on her no matter what.
If you’re lost, you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall, I will catch you, I’ll be waiting
Time after time
2. Prince and the Revolution, “Kiss”
The narrator of this song is listing qualities that do not matter for a potential mate (e.g., “You don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude”). In the chorus, he expresses, what he is looking for:
You don’t have to be rich
To be my girl
You don’t have to be cool
To rule my world
Ain’t no particular sign
I’m more compatible with
I just want your extra time and your
Examples of Refrain in Literature
1. Sylvia Plath, “A Mad Girl’s Love”
This villanelle questions whether the narrator’s loved one is a figment of their imagination. The poem’s dual refrains are “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead” and the parenthetical “(I think I made you up inside my head).” These refrains lend to the dizziness of being in a panicked mental state.
2. Vi Khi Nao, “Fish Carcass”
The narrator of this surreal poem entreats dead fish to speak, to greet what accompanies it on the plate and tell its story. The refrain, “fish carcass/say,” is split between two lines:
say hello to pork rind
+ arborio rice
[…] fish carcass
say goodbye to a knife fight
between under-marinated onion slice
3. William Carlos Williams, “To a Poor Old Woman”
In this brief poem, the narrator observes an elderly woman eating plums. In the second stanza, Williams repeats the line “They taste good to her,” as if to convince the reader that this woman is content with her existence.
4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “A Musical Instrument”
Browning’s poem about the Greek god Pan details how he created the pan flute he is often depicted with. Pan is sitting riverside as he works on his creation, and “the river” acts as the poem’s refrain. It is used in the second and sixth line of every stanza:
WHAT was he doing, the great god Pan,
Down in the reeds by the river?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river.
Further Resources on Refrains
This villanelle generator can provide an example of how the form works by incorporating user-generated words.
This MasterClass lesson on songwriting illustrates common structures, including the chorus and the refrain (referred to here as a bridge).
This article from seattlepi.com explains how to write a poem using elements like stanzas, refrains and rhyme schemes.