Literature

What is a Sestina?

The sestina is not a common form in English poetry, although when done right, it can be one of the most powerful. It is a poem of sixes: six stanzas, each comprising six lines (also known as sestets but known sometimes as ‘sixains’: like ‘quatrains’ but with six instead of four lines), with a final tercet – a concluding ‘envoi’ – bringing the whole poem to a close. So, 39 lines in total, using just six different end-words as the ‘rhymes’. What is a sestina, and what is the sestina used for? How can such a complex and difficult form be used by a poet to express things effectively? Poets as varied as Sir Philip Sidney, Elizabeth Bishop, and Algernon Charles Swinburne have left their mark on this most challenging, and yet rewarding, of poetic forms.

Let’s deal first of all with the structure of the sestina form. The best way to understand how a sestina is constructed is to observe an example of the form. We’ll use, as example, a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) titled ‘Sestina of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni’, which is actually an English translation of a much earlier medieval poem by the poet’s namesake, the Italian Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Here’s the first stanza of Rossetti’s poem:

To the dim light and the large circle of shade
I have clomb, and to the whitening of the hills,
There where we see no colour in the grass.
Natheless my longing loses not its green,
It has so taken root in the hard stone
Which talks and hears as though it were a lady.

The metre here (mainly iambic pentameter in this case, as in most English sestinas) is less important than the ends of the lines, which provide us with the six words which will recur throughout the sestina. Sestinas don’t rhyme: they instead rely on repetition of these six key words, or ‘hero’ words as Stephen Fry calls them in his wonderfully readable The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. So here, our six ‘hero’ words are shade, hills, grass, green, stone, and lady. In the second stanza, we see these same ‘hero’ words repeated, but in a different order at the ends of the stanza’s six lines:

Utterly frozen is this youthful lady,
Even as the snow that lies within the shade;
For she is no more moved than is the stone
By the sweet season which makes warm the hills
And alters them afresh from white to green
Covering their sides again with flowers and grass.

Note that the last line of the first stanza ended with ‘lady’, and now, the first line of the second stanza ends with ‘lady’. So whereas in the first stanza we had shade hills grass green stone lady, now we get lady shade stone hills green grass. This order is not random. The idea is that end-word 6 in stanza 1 becomes end-word 1 in stanza 2, and then for the other five lines of stanza 2, the poet follows a strict order which involves going to the top of stanza 1 (to end-word 1) to give us shade for end-word 2 of our new stanza; then to end-word 5 of stanza 1 for our new third line (stone), then back to the top to end-word 2 to give us our new fourth line (hills), then to end-word 4 for our fifth line (green), and then finally, end-word 3 of our first stanza, grass, provides us with the sixth end-word for stanza 2.

By now, you can see where this is going: the end-word at the end of the last line of the previous stanza always provides the first end-word for the next stanza, so since grass ended our second stanza, we know that the first line of stanza 3 will end with grass too:

When on her hair she sets a crown of grass
The thought has no more room for other lady,
Because she weaves the yellow with the green
So well that Love sits down there in the shade,–
Love who has shut me in among low hills
Faster than between walls of granite-stone.

And, as Harry Hill would say, you get the idea with that. So the form continues, until the whole cycle has worked its way around, once six stanzas have been written. So shade, the end-word for the very first line of the poem, now ends the last line of the sixth stanza. All that remains is for the poet to conclude their sestina with an ‘envoi’, a short stanza of conclusion:

How dark soe’er the hills throw out their shade,
Under her summer green the beautiful lady
Covers it, like a stone cover’d in grass.

However, even here you can see that the sestina form is a fiendishly clever one: each of the six ‘hero’ words from the sestina, shade hills grass green stone lady, now feature in this concluding three-line envoi:

How dark soe’er the hills throw out their shade,
Under her summer green the beautiful lady
Covers it, like a stone cover’d in grass.

Clever, eh? Difficult to write? You bet. Not many poets have managed to master the sestina, because the danger of becoming repetitive and flat is there lurking in wait for you, given the very form and structure of the sestina. If you’re relying on six ‘hero’ words, each of which is going to appear seven times in the poem, they need to be words which are capable of ‘carrying’ the weight of the poem’s ideas and emotive power. That said, some of the most memorable and accomplished examples of the sestina form, such as Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Sestina’, use some very specific words – notably ‘grandmother’ and ‘almanac’ – to great effect across the poem’s 39 lines. And Anthony Hecht, in his wonderful ‘Sestina d’Inverno’, captures the snowy claustrophobia of Rochester in New York through using the words ‘snow’ and ‘Rochester’ throughout his poem.

What’s more, the very feature of the sestina which would render the form, in less than competent hands, a monotonous failure is what can lend it its peculiar force: the repetition of the same end-words. Used well, replacing rhyme (e.g. heart and part) with simple repetition (heart and heart) can convey a sense of stasis or inevitability, a sort of deep-seated resignation. When Eliot used ‘so many’ at the end of two successive lines in The Waste Land, in a feature which has been called homorhyme, he captured the shock of seeing crowds of people in London, just after the end of a major world war, sleepwalking through their lives after a time of so much death and carnage: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many.’ Similarly, that ‘hinge’ between each successive stanza of the sestina, whereby line six of one stanza is echoed in line one of the next, keeps the sestina circling around the same narrow set of concerns, bringing home their deep-rooted associations, their interrelatedness.

So, as we observed at the beginning of this post, the sestina is a verse form that can be put to powerful use. It’s even been used to address perhaps the most difficult subject for modern and contemporary poets: the Holocaust. In ‘The Book of Yolek’, another Anthony Hecht poem, Hecht movingly uses the sestina form to convey the sheer inhumanity and horror of Jewish children being taken from their schools and transported to concentration camps. He does this through using six simple ‘hero’ words: meal, walk, to, home, camp, and day. All small, ordinary words (especially that preposition, ‘to’: Hecht varies this by including ‘too’ and ‘1942’ as slight departures from this exact hero-word), which are here used subtly but arrestingly to bring home the tragedy of one of modern history’s darkest times.

Finally, and to conclude on a lighter note, for some poets the sestina, amazingly, isn’t complicated enough: Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) made his hero-words rhyme, as day night way light may delight. What’s more, Swinburne, following the example set by the Elizabethan poet and (literal) Renaissance man Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), wrote a double sestina, which features twice the number of sixains in which all of the hero-words go round again. But that is ambitious, and rare in English verse!

7 Comments

  1. blindzanygirl

    I love to write sestinas but not sure how well I do it. I am intrigues by them, and they present a challenge to me. I really enjoy doung them. So now, I will have to go and do another one! 😀

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  3. My students, prone more towards math than lyrical lines of poetry, do enjoy the pattern found in sestinas.

  4. Ron Houssaye

    As an active poet myself, I was preparing a new poem recently and researched the Sestina and other poetic forms. I decided not to use the Sestina form, however I used sprung rhyme, a form mastered by Gerard Manley Hopkins, in such poems as “God’s Grandeur.”

    The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
    Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
    Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge |&| shares man’s smell: the soil
    Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

    And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
    And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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