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Refrains are the repetition of a word, phrase or sentence within a poem or song, usually at the end of each stanza or verse. The purpose and function of a refrain within a poem varies, with the main purpose usually being to establish a meter or to re-establish tone or atmosphere. Refrains put special emphasis on what is being repeated, often to show a narrative or progressive change in meaning as each stanza flows into the next. Sometimes, it functions as merely a pleasing break for the reader or to act as a sort of filler. This latter function is more typical of music.
The device is found within many ancient texts and lyrics. In fact, refrains are found even within the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. The ancient Latin, Greek and Hebrew also used refrain in their verses. The word refrain derives from the Latin refringere, which means to “break back.” This indicates the refrain’s tendency to break from the verse and bring the imagery back to previous times the line was repeated. It also comes from a later term from the French, refraindre, which translates to “check" or "repeat.”
Other similar forms of repetition such as a sestina, a villanelle or a pantoum are often compared to the structuring of refrains. A sestina is a very structured poem involving six lines and six stanzas in which each stanza ends with the same six words in varying order. Villanelles and pantoums repeat several lines throughout each stanza of the poem as opposed to just singular lines as in a refrain.
Some writers question the importance of refrains. It is believed that the repetition may in fact lessen the importance of the phrase and make the poem seem redundant and predictable. The majority of writers and readers of poetry believe that the repetition instead acts more as an enjoyable break within the work that can also add anticipation and eagerness to reveal the change in meaning behind the repeated line with each stanza.
While a refrain repeats words, phrases, or whole sentences, it does not have to repeat the exact same words every time. In some refrains, one or two words may be replaced. In this instance, it is important that the repeated line maintains the same metric rhythm. Refrains are also found in some free verse, usually to establish a definite divide between the free verse and prose when combined together. In this instance, it also unifies the two.