Definition of Sestina

A sestina is a fixed form in poetry that has six stanzas of six lines each followed by a three-line stanza; each line ends with one of six words in a standard repetition. These six words are chosen by the poet, but must be repeated in a certain order for the poem to qualify as a sestina. The pattern is thus:
1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
(6 2) (1 4) (5 3)

The last word of the last line of the first stanza (which is labelled “6” above), repeats as the last word in the first line of the following stanza. Note that in the final three-line stanza, known as the envoy or tornada, there is a repetition of the six words so that two appear in each of the three lines, one in the middle and one at the end. Though this pattern sounds complicated, it is easy to understand in action. See the examples below to analyze the repetition pattern.

The word sestina is derived from the Latin word sextus for “six.” The French troubadour Arnaut Daniel is usually attributed with developing the definition of sestina in the twelfth-century. He did not call it the form a “sestina,” however; he referred to it cledisat, which meant “interlocking” in order to show the way that the lines worked with each other. Italian poets such as Dante and Petrarch were interested in the form, and wrote their own works with the same repetition pattern in the thirteenth century. The form became known as a sestina after their popularization of the pattern.

Common Examples of Sestina

The sestina is a very highly regulated poetic form, and thus it does not exist outside of poetry. Unlike some other forms that are used in popular culture, such as the limerick and haiku, sestinas only achieve their significance when presented as a whole. Neither are there particularly famous lines from any sestinas which have filtered into public consciousness, unlike the villanelle form from which we have Dylan Thomas’s famous lines “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The sestina form truly belongs only within a very specific literary realm.

Significance of Sestina in Literature

Originally there were more formal strictures to the sestina; the French troubadour Arnaut Daniel demanded that each line should be made up of ten syllables, except the first which was made up of seven syllables. Dante and Petrarch also wrote lines of eleven syllables (hendecasyllable), which was the primary meter in Italian poetry at that time. Since that time, poets have done away with any standardization of meter within the sestina. Instead, the main effect of an example of sestina comes from the repetition of those six words. The repetition is both easily understood when viewed, while also sounding a bit labyrinthine. Similar to the repetition in a villanelle, the repeated words in a sestina can sound like a complaint or an obsession.

Examples of Sestina in Literature

We have included three full sestina examples so that you can see and understand the pattern of repetition.

Example #1

Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,
Seeing at end of street the barren mountains,
Round corners coming suddenly on water,
Knowing them shipwrecked who were launched for islands,
We honour founders of these starving cities
Whose honour is the image of our sorrow,

Which cannot see its likeness in their sorrow
That brought them desperate to the brink of valleys;
Dreaming of evening walks through learned cities
They reined their violent horses on the mountains,
Those fields like ships to castaways on islands,
Visions of green to them who craved for water.

They built by rivers and at night the water
Running past windows comforted their sorrow;
Each in his little bed conceived of islands
Where every day was dancing in the valleys
And all the green trees blossomed on the mountains
Where love was innocent, being far from cities.

But dawn came back and they were still in cities;
No marvellous creature rose up from the water;
There was still gold and silver in the mountains
But hunger was a more immediate sorrow,
Although to moping villagers in valleys
Some waving pilgrims were describing islands …

“The gods,” they promised, “visit us from islands,
Are stalking, head-up, lovely, through our cities;
Now is the time to leave your wretched valleys
And sail with them across the lime-green water,
Sitting at their white sides, forget your sorrow,
The shadow cast across your lives by mountains.”

So many, doubtful, perished in the mountains,
Climbing up crags to get a view of islands,
So many, fearful, took with them their sorrow
Which stayed them when they reached unhappy cities,
So many, careless, dived and drowned in water,
So many, wretched, would not leave their valleys.

It is our sorrow. Shall it melt? Ah, water
Would gush, flush, green these mountains and these valleys,
And we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.

(“Paysage Moralisé” by W.H. Auden)

W.H. Auden’s example of sestina, “Paysage Moralisé,” led to a revival of the sestina form in English. Auden has chosen six words that are relatively similar: valleys, mountains, water, islands, cities, and sorrow. Each of these words is a noun, and only one is an abstract noun. The others all refer to geographical features. Auden had made the repetition a bit easier on himself by choosing only nouns, and ones that are easily connected. However, he also changes the concepts slightly, especially with the way that “islands” functions in the third stanza where it suddenly refers to the way we are all isolated in our own beds.

Example #2

The first of the undecoded messages read: “Popeye sits in thunder,
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.”
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: “How pleasant
To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye,” she scratched
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach

And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
“M’love,” he intercepted, “the plains are decked out in thunder
Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country.”

Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach
When the door opened and Swee’pea crept in. “How pleasant!”
But Swee’pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib. “Thunder
And tears are unavailing,” it read. “Henceforth shall Popeye’s apartment
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched.”

Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh. “I have news!” she gasped. “Popeye, forced as you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant

Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder.”
She grabbed Swee’pea. “I’m taking the brat to the country.”
“But you can’t do that—he hasn’t even finished his spinach,”
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.

But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush. “Actually it’s quite pleasant
Here,” thought the Sea Hag. “If this is all we need fear from spinach
Then I don’t mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon over”—she scratched
One dug pensively—“but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that.” Minute at first, the thunder

Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,
The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.

(“Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” by John Ashbery)

John Ashbery made some more complicated choices for his repeating words than Auden, including nouns (“apartment,” “thunder,” “country,” and “spinach”), an adjective (“pleasant”), and a past-tense verb (“scratched”). Including the adjective and verb as the repeating words necessarily makes them function in many different ways, as they are used to modify other words.

Example #3

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

(“Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop)

Twentieth-century poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote a few sestina examples, such as the above poem and her poem “A Miracle for Breakfast.” Bishop was very interested in exploring the different effects a sestina could give her. In this poem, she repeats the words “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “stove,” “almanac,” and “tears.” Like Auden, Bishop chose only nouns. She chose the contrast of the grandmother and child to show a juxtaposition of their two stages of life. She also does a nice job changing the means of “tears” throughout, showing the tears of the grandmother, the teakettle and teacup, and comparing them to little moons and buttons.

Test Your Knowledge of Sestina

1. Which of the following forms is the correct sestina definition?
A. A poem with nineteen lines, two of which are alternately repeated throughout.
B. A poem with thirty-nine lines, broken into six stanzas of six lines and one three-line envoy, each of which ends with one of six words.
C. A poem with fourteen lines with a strict rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements is true about sestinas?
A. There is no rhyme scheme in an example of a sestina.
B. The word sestina was created by the French troubadour Arnaut Daniel.
C. There are no examples of sestinas from contemporary poets.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following opening stanza from Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte”:

Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.

Which of the following words would you find at the end of the first line of the next stanza?
A. Peace
B. Clash
C. Rejoicing

Answer to Question #3 Show

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