Sestina

What Is a Sestina? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Sestina Definition

 

A sestina (ses-TEE-na) is a poetic form comprised of seven stanzas. It is a fixed-verse form, meaning it follows a strict structure. The first six stanzas are sextains; they have six lines each. The seventh stanza has three lines. While some historical sestinas employ rhyme or meter, modern-day English sestinas are written in blank verse—they do not rhyme.

The first known sestina, “Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra,” was written by Arnaut Daniel, a 12th-century troubadour from Provençal (modern-day Provence, France). Daniel is often credited with inventing the form. Italian poets Francesco Petrarch and Dante greatly admired Daniel and spread the form throughout Italy. By the end of the 16th century, English poets were writing sestinas as well.

 

How to Construct a Sestina

 

There is more to a sestina than seven stanzas. There is an element of repetition that is integral to the form.

Throughout the poem, there are six words that repeat six times. The words initially appear as the final words in each line of the first stanza. The subsequent appearances adhere to a specific, rotating pattern that goes as follows:

The sixth end-word of Stanza I becomes the first end-word of Stanza II. The first end-word of Stanza I becomes the second end-word of Stanza II. The fifth end-word of Stanza I becomes the third end-word of Stanza II. The second end-word of Stanza I becomes the fourth end-word of Stanza II. The fourth end-word of Stanza I becomes the fifth end-word of Stanza II. And finally, the third end-word of Stanza I becomes the sixth end-word of Stanza II.

This pattern repeats for the remaining sextains, with the new end-words in Stanza II rotating in the same order for Stanza III and so on.

To get a better handle on this organization, consider the first translated two stanzas of Dante Alighieri’s “Sestina of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni.” (The bolding and end-word order are added for emphasis.)

To the dim light and the large circle of shade (1)
I have clomb, and to the whitening of the hills, (2)
There where we see no color in the grass. (3)
Natheless my longing loses not its green, (4)
It has so taken root in the hard stone (5)
Which talks and hears as though it were a lady. (6)

Utterly frozen is this youthful lady, (6)
Even as the snow that lies within the shade; (1)
For she is no more moved than is the stone (5)
By the sweet season which makes warm the hills (2)
And alters them afresh from white to green (4)
Covering their sides again with flowers and grass. (3)

 

Poetic Forms Similar to the Sestina

 

The villanelle is another lyrical, repetition-based poetic form. It is comprised of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a final quatrain (four-line stanza). The first and third line in the first tercet alternately appear as the third line in each subsequent tercet. They are also the last two lines in the final quatrain. The villanelle observes an ABA rhyme scheme, with the final quatrain rhyming ABAA.

A pantoum is a poem comprised of a series of interlocking quatrains. The second and fourth lines of one quatrain become the first and third of the next. Unlike a sestina or villanelle, there is no restriction on the length of a pantoum. The rhyme scheme is ABAB.

There are also contemporary adaptations to the traditional sestina form. A double sestina is formed the way it sounds. Instead of six sextains, there are 12 stanzas of 12 lines each, and the 13th stanza is a sextain. Most notably, this form rhymes. Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “The Complaint of Lisa” is considered the first double sestina written in English.

The tretina was invented by American poet Marie Ponsot. Calling her creation the square root of the sestina, this form employs just three repeating words in three tercets. The rotating pattern looks like this: 123 312 231. The fourth and final stanza is a single line containing all three repeating words. An example of this is her poem “Roundstone Cove.”

 

Examples of Sestinas

 

1. Elizabeth Bishop, “Sestina

Bishop paints a portrait of a grandmother and young granddaughter trying to ignore the sad circumstances that brought them together one night:

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, […]

The repeating words—house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, tears—help shift the perspective from the grandmother to the granddaughter, and even to the almanac.

2. Sherman Alexie, “The Business of Fanydancing

A writer of Spokane/Coeur d’Alene decent, Alexie often explores the struggle between existing in a white, modern world and wanting to hold sacred the traditions of his ancestors. In this piece, (fancy)dancing could be a metaphor for writing on Indigenous themes for white consumption:

[…] wallets and stomachs, to fill our empty
cooler. Vernon is like some promise
to pay the light bill, a credit card we
Indians get to use. When he reach-
es his hands up, feathers held high, in a dance
that makes old women speak English, the money

for first place belongs to us, all in cash, money
we tuck in our shoes, leaving our wallets empty
in case we pass out. At the modern dance,
where Indians dance white, a twenty is a promise
that can last all night long, a promise reach-
ing into the back pocket of unfamiliar Levis. We
[…]

Repeated along with the words empty, we, promise, money, and reach, the concept of fancydancing illustrates a conflict between lacking resources for simple joys in life and feeling uneasy about selling out.

3. Seamus Heaney,Two Lorries

In this sestina, Heaney bends the rules about repeating words. Load is exchanged for words that rhyme or have slightly different letters—lode, lead, payload, and explode. In the fifth and sixth sextains, mother morphs into her and other, respectively. Making these substitutions loosens the form, places of focus on the sounds of words, and emphasizes the three words that are repeated without variation (ashes, coalman, Magherafelt).

4. Raych Jackson, “A sestina for a black girl who does not know how to braid hair

Jackson often composes poetry in an improvised stream-of-consciousness conversation with herself. When writing this poem, however, she noticed that several of the same words kept bubbling up:

Your hands have no more worth than tree stumps at harvest.
Don’t sit on my porch while I make myself useful.
Braid secrets in scalps on summer days for my sisters.
Secure every strand of gossip with tight rubber bands of value.
What possessed you to ever grow your nails so long?
How can you have history without braids?

A black girl is happiest when rooted to the scalp are braids.
She dances with them whipping down her back like corn in winds of harvest.
Braiding forces our reunions to be like the shifts your mothers work, long.
I find that being surrounded by only your own is more useful.
Gives our mixed blood more value.
Solidifies your place with your race, with your sisters.

Jackson uses the sestina form and its rotating repeating words loosely to reflect her change in perspective over time. At the beginning of the poem, she laments that she cannot braid hair (“Your hands have no more worth than tree stumps at harvest”). By the end, she recognizes that having a head of hair for others to braid is equally as “useful” as having hands that know how to braid.

 

Further Resources On Sestinas

 

The Incredible Sestina Anthology, edited by Daniel Nester, offers a collection of both classic and contemporary sestinas.

This YouTube video features the first known sestina, “Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra,” being sung.

Camille Guthrie explores why she writes sestinas in this piece for the Poetry Foundation.

 

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