Literature

10 of the Best Sestinas in English

Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle

The sestina form is thought to have been created by Provencal troubadours – and possibly by one specific troubadour, Arnaut Daniel – in around 1200. However, it didn’t arrive in English literature until the late 1570s, when both Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, poets at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, used it … and then sestinas disappeared from English verse until the late nineteenth century. Since then, the sestina has remained a part of Anglophone poetry. It is a poem of sixes: six stanzas, each comprising six lines (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. But instead of using rhyme, the sestina relies on the repetition of six key words – what Stephen Fry has called ‘hero’ words – which end the lines of each stanza, but in a different order each time. You can find more background to the sestina form here. Here, we select ten of the best examples of the sestina form in all of English – and American – verse.

Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Ye Goatherd Gods’.

Ye goatherd gods, that love the grassy mountains,
Ye nymphs which haunt the springs in pleasant valleys,
Ye satyrs joyed with free and quiet forests,
Vouchsafe your silent ears to plaining music,
Which to my woes gives still an early morning,
And draws the dolor on till weary evening.

We begin with what was possibly the sestina’s debut in English literature, in the first book of Sidney’s vast work the Arcadia. Sidney (1554-86) also wrote the first substantial sonnet sequence in English, where he innovated with the existing Petrarchan form and the new English sonnet form (which Shakespeare would later use). With the sestina, too, he was immediately testing the possibilities of the form, and offers us here not simply a sestina but a double sestina, whereby the cycle of repeated words goes round not once but twice. The Arcadia is a pastoral work (it’s been called the first English novel), and in this sestina we find two shepherds lamenting their lack of success in love.

Edmund Spenser, ‘Ye Wastefull Woodes’. Spenser (c. 1552-99) is the other Elizabethan poet, alongside Sidney, who used the form during its brief vogue in England in the sixteenth century. Once again, his sestina appeared in a longer pastoral work, The Shepheardes Calendar:

Ye wastful Woods bear witness of my Woe,
Wherein my Plaints did oftentimes resound;
Ye careless Birds are privy to my Cryes,
Which in your Songs were wont to make a part:
Thou pleasant Spring hast lull’d me oft asleep,
Whose streams my trickling rears did oft augment.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Sestina of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni’.

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 color 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 …

This example of a sestina written in English is actually an English translation of a medieval Italian one, written by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), best-known as the author of the Divine Comedy (and the poet after whom the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti was named).

Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘Sestina’.

I saw my soul at rest upon a day
As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,
Among soft leaves that give the starlight way
To touch its wings but not its eyes with light;
So that it knew as one in visions may,
And knew not as men waking, of delight …

Swinburne (1837-1909) was something of a virtuoso when it came to poetic form, and here he makes his ‘hero’ words rhyme too: day, night, way, light, may, delight. He also wrote an even more ambitious double-sestina, which you can read here if this one whets your appetite for more!

Rudyard Kipling, ‘Sestina of the Tramp-Royal’.

Speakin’ in general, I ’ave tried ’em all—
The ’appy roads that take you o’er the world.
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get ’ence, the same as I ’ave done,
An’ go observin’ matters till they die …

Dating from 1896, this poem is one of Kipling’s many poems showcasing his ability to capture the speech of the ordinary man – here, a tramp or super-tramp (or ‘tramp-royal’). As with Sidney’s shepherds, this most elaborate of verse forms is here used to give voice to a down-to-earth figure…

Ezra Pound, ‘Sestina: Altaforte’. Modernist poets didn’t tend to dabble in the sestina form, although T. S. Eliot offered a variation on it in his ‘The Dry Salvages’, from Four Quartets. However, Ezra Pound – who championed the poetry of the medieval troubadours – did write this energetic sestina spoken by a medieval warrior, Bertran de Born. The poem is an early Pound effort and, as well as being influenced by medieval Europe, is stylistically indebted to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues.

W. H. Auden, ‘Paysage Moralisé’. Auden (1907-73) was, like Swinburne, a virtuoso who tackled many poetic forms over the course of his career, leaving his mark on both major forms like the sonnet and more niche ones like the villanelle. In this sestina from 1934, Auden muses upon various landscapes including mountains, valleys, islands, and cities.

Elizabeth Bishop, ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’. Bishop wrote several memorable sestinas, including one called, simply, ‘Sestina’. We’ve chosen ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’ here because it is even more invested in the ordinary and everyday, as Bishop’s choice of ‘hero’ words makes clear: coffee, crumb, balcony, sun, river. The one exception is the truly exceptional miracle

Anthony Hecht, ‘The Book of Yolek’. Hecht wrote two brilliant sestinas: this and his earlier ‘Sestina d’Inverno’. But this later poem is the one we’ve chosen to include here, because it 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 during the Holocaust. Hecht does this through using six simple ‘hero’ words: meal, walk, to, home, camp, and day. All small, ordinary words, which are here used subtly but arrestingly to bring home the tragedy of one of modern history’s darkest times.

Marilyn Hacker, ‘Forage Sestina’. Hacker (born 1942) is one of the most accomplished contemporary practitioners of the sestina form. ‘Forage Sestina’, which appeared in Hacker’s much-acclaimed debut collection Presentation Piece (1974), cleverly explores the notion of form itself through the sestina’s strict structure (indeed, ‘structure’, ‘room’, and ‘words’ are three of her poem’s six ‘hero’ words).

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

One Comment

  1. Robert Bowden

    All excellent, informative stuff !

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