A sestina (Old Occitan: cledisat[klediˈzat]; also known as sestine, sextine, sextain) is a fixed verse form consisting of six stanzas of six lines each, normally followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern.
The invention of the form is usually attributed to Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour of 12th-century Provence, and the first sestinas were written in the Occitan language of that region. The form was cultivated by his fellow troubadours, then by other poets across Continental Europe in the subsequent centuries; they contributed to what would become the "standard form" of the sestina. The earliest example of the form in English appeared in 1579, though they were rarely written in Britain until the end of the 19th century. The sestina remains a popular poetic form, and many sestinas continue to be written by contemporary poets.
The oldest-known sestina is "Lo ferm voler qu'el cor m'intra", written around 1200 by Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour of Aquitanian origin; he refers to it as "cledisat", meaning, more or less, "interlock". Hence, Daniel is generally considered the form's inventor, though it has been suggested that he may only have innovated an already existing form. Nevertheless, two other original troubadouric sestinas are known, the best known being "Eras, pus vey mon benastruc" by Guilhem Peire Cazals de Caortz; there are also two contrafacta built on the same end-words, the best known being Ben gran avoleza intra by Bertran de Born. These early sestinas were written in Old Occitan; the form started spilling into Italian with Dante in the 13th century; by the 15th, it was used in Portuguese by Luís de Camões.
The involvement of Dante and Petrarch in establishing the sestina form, together with the contributions of others in the country, account for its classification as an Italian verse form—despite not originating there. The result was that the sestina was re-imported into France from Italy in the 16th century.Pontus de Tyard was the first poet to attempt the form in French, and the only one to do so prior to the 19th century; he introduced a partial rhyme scheme in his sestina.
The first appearance of the sestina in English print is "Ye wastefull woodes", comprising lines 151–89 of the August Æglogue in Edmund Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar, published in 1579. It is in unrhymed iambic pentameter, but the order of end-words in each stanza is non-standard – ending 123456, 612345, etc. – each stanza promoting the previous final end-word to the first line, but otherwise leaving the order intact; the envoi order is (1) 2 / (3) 4 / (5) 6. This scheme was set by the Spaniard Gutierre de Cetina.
Although they appeared in print later, Philip Sidney's three sestinas may have been written earlier, and are often credited as the first in English. The first published (toward the end of Book I of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, 1590) is the double sestina "Ye Goatherd Gods". In this variant the standard end-word pattern is repeated for twelve stanzas, ending with a three-line envoi, resulting in a poem of 75 lines. Two others were published in subsequent editions of the Arcadia. The second, "Since wailing is a bud of causeful sorrow", is in the "standard" form. Like "Ye Goatherd Gods" it is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter and uses exclusively feminine endings, reflecting the Italian endecasillabo. The third, "Farewell, O sun, Arcadia's clearest light", is the first rhyming sestina in English: it is in iambic pentameters and follows the standard end-word scheme, but rhymes ababcc in the first stanza (the rhyme scheme necessarily changes in each subsequent stanza, a consequence of which is that the 6th stanza is in rhyming couplets). Sidney uses the same envoi structure as Spenser. William Drummond of Hawthornden published two sestinas (which he called "sextains") in 1616, which copy the form of Sidney's rhyming sestina. After this, there is an absence of notable sestinas for over 250 years, with John Frederick Nims noting that, "... there is not a single sestina in the three volumes of the Oxford anthologies that cover the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."
In the 1870s, there was a revival of interest in French forms, led by Andrew Lang, Austin Dobson, Edmund Gosse, W. E. Henley, John Payne, and others. The earliest sestina of this period is Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Sestina". It is in iambic pentameter rhyming ababab in the first stanza; each stanza begins by repeating the previous end-words 6 then 1, but the following 4 lines repeat the remaining end-words ad lib; the envoi is (1) 4 / (2) 3 / (5) 6. In the same volume (Poems and Ballads, Second Series, 1878) Swinburne introduces a "double sestina" ("The Complaint of Lisa") that is unlike Sidney's: it comprises 12 stanzas of 12 iambic pentameter lines each, the first stanza rhyming abcabdcefedf. Similar to his "Sestina", each stanza first repeats end-words 12 then 1 of the previous stanza; the rest are ad lib. The envoi is (12) 10 / (8) 9 / (7) 4 / (3) 6 / (2) 1 / (11) 5.
From the 1930s, a revival of the form took place across the English-speaking world, led by poets such as W. H. Auden, and the 1950s were described as the "age of the sestina" by James E. B. Breslin. "Sestina: Altaforte" by Ezra Pound and "Paysage moralisé" by W. H. Auden are distinguished modern examples of the sestina. The sestina remains a popular closed verse form, and many sestinas continue to be written by contemporary poets; notable examples include "The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People" by David Ferry and "IVF" by Kona Macphee.
Although the sestina has been subject to many revisions throughout its development, there remain several features that define the form. The sestina is composed of six stanzas of six lines (sixains), followed by a stanza of three lines (a tercet). There is no rhyme within the stanzas; instead the sestina is structured through a recurrent pattern of the words that end each line, a technique known as "lexical repetition".
In the original form composed by Daniel, each line is of ten syllables, except the first of each stanza which are of seven. The established form, as developed by Petrarch and Dante, was in hendecasyllables. Since then, changes to the line length have been a relatively common variant, such that Stephen Burt has written: "sestinas, as the form exists today, [do not] require expertise with inherited meter ...".
The pattern that the line-ending words follow is often explained if the numbers 1 to 6 are allowed to stand for the end-words of the first stanza. Each successive stanza takes its pattern based upon a bottom-up pairing of the lines of the preceding stanza (i.e., last and first, then second-from-last and second, then third-from-last and third). Given that the pattern for the first stanza is 123456, this produces 615243 in the second stanza.
Another way of visualising the pattern of line-ending words for each stanza is by the procedure known as retrogradatio cruciata, which may be rendered as "backward crossing". The second stanza can be seen to have been formed from three sets of pairs (6–1, 5–2, 4–3), or two triads (1–2–3, 4–5–6). The 1–2–3 triad appears in its original order, but the 4–5–6 triad is reversed and superimposed upon it.
The pattern of the line-ending words in a sestina is represented both numerically and alphabetically in the following table:
|Stanza 1||Stanza 2||Stanza 3||Stanza 4||Stanza 5||Stanza 6|
|1 A||6 F||3 C||5 E||4 D||2 B|
|2 B||1 A||6 F||3 C||5 E||4 D|
|3 C||5 E||4 D||2 B||1 A||6 F|
|4 D||2 B||1 A||6 F||3 C||5 E|
|5 E||4 D||2 B||1 A||6 F||3 C|
|6 F||3 C||5 E||4 D||2 B||1 A|
The sixth stanza is followed by a tercet that is known variably by the French term envoi, the Occitan term tornada, or, with reference to its size in relation to the preceding stanzas, a "half-stanza". It consists of three lines that include all six of the line-endings words of the preceding stanzas. This should take the pattern of 2–5, 4–3, 6–1 (numbers relative to the first stanza); the first end-word of each pair can occur anywhere in the line, while the second must end the line. However, the end-word order of the envoi is no longer strictly enforced.
Time to plant tears (6), says the almanac (5).
The grandmother (2) sings to the marvelous stove (4)
and the child (3) draws another inscrutable house (1).
Elizabeth Bishop (1965)
The sestina has been subject to some variations, with changes being made to both the size and number of stanzas, and also to individual line length. A "double sestina" is the name given to either: two sets of six six-line stanzas, with a three-line envoy (for a total of 75 lines), or twelve twelve-line stanzas, with a six-line envoy (for a total of 150 lines). Examples of either variation are rare; "Ye Goatherd Gods" by Philip Sidney is a notable example of the former variation, while "The Complaint of Lisa" by Algernon Charles Swinburne is a notable example of the latter variation. In the former variation, the original pattern of line-ending words, i.e. that of the first stanza, recurs in the seventh stanza, and thus the entire change of pattern occurs twice throughout. In the second variation, the pattern of line-ending words returns to the starting sequence in the eleventh stanza; thus it does not, unlike the "single" sestina, allow for every end-word to occupy each of the stanza ends; end-words 5 and 10 fail to couple between stanzas.
A "tritina" is a contraction of the sestina to three stanzas of three lines (tercets), with a one-line envoy. The order of the line-ending words follows the same pattern as that of the sestina, so that they appear: 123, 312, 231 with the envoy as 123.
In fair Provence, the land of lute and rose,
Arnaut, great master of the lore of love,
First wrought sestines to win his lady's heart,
For she was deaf when simpler staves he sang,
And for her sake he broke the bonds of rhyme,
And in this subtler measure hid his woe.
'Harsh be my lines,' cried Arnaut, 'harsh the woe
My lady, that enthorn'd and cruel rose,
Inflicts on him that made her live in rhyme!'
But through the metre spake the voice of Love,
And like a wild-wood nightingale he sang
Who thought in crabbed lays to ease his heart.
Edmund Gosse (1879)
The structure of the sestina, which demands adherence to a strict and arbitrary order, produces several effects within a poem. Stephen Burt notes that, "The sestina has served, historically, as a complaint", its harsh demands acting as "signs for deprivation or duress". The structure can enhance the subject matter that it orders; in reference to Elizabeth Bishop's A Miracle for Breakfast, David Caplan suggests that the form's "harshly arbitrary demands echo its subject's". Nevertheless, the form's structure has been criticised; Paul Fussell considers the sestina to be of "dubious structural expressiveness" when composed in English and, irrespective of how it is used, "would seem to be [a form] that gives more structural pleasure to the contriver than to the apprehender."
Margaret Spanos highlights "a number of corresponding levels of tension and resolution" resulting from the structural form, including: structural, semantic and aesthetic tensions. She believes that the aesthetic tension, which results from the "conception of its mathematical completeness and perfection", set against the "experiences of its labyrinthine complexities" can be resolved in the apprehension of the "harmony of the whole."
The strength of the sestina, according to Stephen Fry, is the "repetition and recycling of elusive patterns that cannot be quite held in the mind all at once". For Shanna Compton, these patterns are easily discernible by newcomers to the form; she says that: "Even someone unfamiliar with the form's rules can tell by the end of the second stanza ... what's going on ...".
The 1972 television play Between Time and Timbuktu, based on the writings of Kurt Vonnegut, was about a poet-astronaut who wanted to compose a sestina in outer space. Vonnegut wrote a sestina for the production.
- Villanelle, another type of fixed verse form.
- Canzone, an Italian or Provençal song or ballad, in which the sestina is sometimes included.
- Pentina, a variation of the sestina based on five endwords.
- Burt, Stephen (2007). "Sestina! or, The Fate of the Idea of Form". Modern Philology. 105 (1): 218–241. doi:10.1086/587209. JSTOR 10.1086/587209. (subscription required)
- Caplan, David (2006). Questions of possibility: contemporary poetry and poetic form. US: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-531325-3.
- Davidson, F. J. A. (1910). "The Origin of the Sestina". Modern Language Notes. 25 (1): 18–20. doi:10.2307/2915934. JSTOR 2915934. (subscription required)
- Ferguson, Margaret; et al. (1996). The Norton Anthology of Poetry. US: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 0-393-96820-0.
- Fry, Stephen (2007). The Ode Less Travelled. UK: Arrow Books. ISBN 978-0-09-950934-9.
- Fussell, Paul (1979). Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. US: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. ISBN 978-0-07-553606-2.
- Gasparov, M. L. (1996). A History of European Versification. UK: Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-815879-0.
- Kastner, L. E. (1903). A History of French Versification. UK: Clarendon Press.
- Krysl, Marilyn (2004). "Sacred and Profane: Sestina as Rite". The American Poetry Review. 33 (2): 7–12.
- Lennard, John (2006). The Poetry Handbook. UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-926538-1.
- Preminger, Alex; et al. (1993). The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. US: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02123-6.
- Shapiro, Marianne (1980). Hieroglyph of time: the Petrarchan sestina. US: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-0945-1.
- Spanos, Margaret (1978). "The Sestina: An Exploration of the Dynamics of Poetic Structure". Medieval Academy of America. 53 (3): 545–557. doi:10.2307/2855144. JSTOR 2855144. (subscription required)
- Strand, Mark; Boland, Eavan (2001). The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. US: Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-32178-4.
- White, Gleeson, ed. (1887). Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, etc. The Canterbury Poets. The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd.
- ^Eusebi, Mario (1996). L'aur'amara. Rome: Carocci. ISBN 978-88-7984-167-2.
- ^ abFry 2007 p. 235
- ^Davidson 1910 pp. 18–20
- ^Collura, Alessio (2010). Il trovatore Guilhem Peire de Cazals. Edizione Critica. Padova: Master Thesis, University of Padova.
- ^ abcdefgPreminger 1993 p. 1146
- ^"Sestina of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- ^ abcGasparov 1996 p. 159
- ^Stratton 1917 pp. 306, 316, 318
- ^Kastner 1903 p. 283
- ^Kastner 1903 pp. 283–4
- ^"The Shepheardes Calender: August". University of Oregon. Retrieved 28 March 2012.
- ^Shapiro 1980 p. 185
- ^ abFerguson 1996 pp. 188–90
- ^ abBurt 2007 p. 219
- ^Caplan 2006 pp. 19–20
- ^White 1887 p xxxix
- ^This is the earliest-published sestina reprinted by Gleeson White (White 1887 pp 203–12), and he doesn't mention any earlier ones.
- ^Lennard 2006 p. 53
- ^Caplan 2006 p. 20
- ^"Sestina: Altaforte". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- ^Preminger 1993 p. 1147
- ^Burt 2007 pp. 218–19
- ^"The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- ^Fry 2007 p. 231
- ^Spanos 1978 p. 546
- ^Fry 2007 p. 232
- ^Kastner 1903 p. 284
- ^Strand et al. 2001 p. 24
- ^Burt 2007 p. 222
- ^Krysl 2004 p. 9
- ^Shapiro 1980 pp. 7–8
- ^Fry 2007 pp. 234–5
- ^Fry 2007 p. 234
- ^Fry 2007 p. 237
- ^Ferguson 1996 p. 1413–13
- ^"The Complaint of Lisa". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 19 February 2012.
- ^"Tritina for Susannah". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 19 February 2012.
- ^Caplan 2006 p. 23
- ^Fussell 1979 p. 145
- ^ abSpanos 1987 p. 551
- ^Fry 2007 p. 238
- ^Burt 2007 p. 226
- ^Vonnegut, Kurt (2012). Wakefield, Dan, ed. Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 9780345535399. (Letter of October 2, 1971, to his daughter Nanette.)
English poetry does not so much borrow poetic models from other languages as it does rock up to their bank with a shotgun and tell them to empty the vault. Here’s a look at some its most fruitful hackings.
The sestina is often cited as the gold standard of poetic difficulty, when it actually just requires a different way of thinking about the structure of a poem. Sestinas have stanzas of six lines, but instead of a rhyme scheme, each stanza’s lines end with the same words, arranged in a different order. It’s probably easier to see a real-life example: take Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte”.
Pound himself described it as “a form like a thin sheet of flame, folding and infolding upon itself”. I can’t really match that level of metaphorical penetration, but a good sestina feels to me like the confluence of mathematics and poetry; its ordering has a kind of precise mathematical beauty, especially when represented visually:
The sestina was invented by Arnaut Daniel around 1200, who named it a “cledisat”, meaning something like ‘interlock’ in Occitan. His first sestina is a shining monument of poetic awkwardness; whereas less ambitious versifiers might choose their end-words with a degree of flexibility, as they need to be repeated seven times; not so for Arnaut, who chooses ‘nail’ and ‘uncle’ as two of his end-words. Yes, “uncle”. And just to front even more, he brags about it, including a line towards the end that roughly translates as “Arnaut sends out this song of ‘uncles’ and ‘nails’”.
English sestinas have enjoyed an impressive variety. Rudyard Kipling’s "Sestina of the Tramp-Royal" stands at the opposite end of Daniel’s effort, quietly concealing the sestina form beneath a heavily vernacular diction:
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.
It’s interesting to read, but feels like a bit of an empty exercise. Compare Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’, which uses the end-words not only as topics of insistence, but as a means to advance a narrative:
At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
—like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.
The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee...
A. C. Swinburne, very a much a proponent of the ‘more is more’ philosophy when it came to rhyme, attempted rhyming sestinas, but these kind of miss the point. The sestina forces the mind to regard sameness and difference all at once, and the linking power of rhyme muddies that contrast.
The sonnet is now near-ubiquitous, with Shakespeare’s remarkable run of them taught in schools, and their bon mots scattered in the wind of popular culture. In the 1500s, though, the sonnet was a new, exotic art, practised by the medieval Italian masters, Dante and Petrarch. It was Thomas Wyatt, a courtier of Henry VIII’s, who imported the form to England by way of his translations of Petrarch, which led to his original sonnets.
Wyatt’s sonnet ‘Whoso list to hunt’ is a beautiful demonstration of this nascent form, with the added intrigue that it quite probably references the way Wyatt was forced to give up his relationship with Anne Boleyn when Henry VIII set eyes on her, and requested to be moved to Italy on diplomatic duty shortly afterwards. Wyatt’s friend, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, established the rhyme scheme that Shakespeare would eventually use: ababcdcdefefgg, which is more amenable to the rhyme-deficient English, allowing seven rhyme sounds rather than the original five.
Today, the sonnet form is a touchstone across English language poetry, used both traditionally, and experimentally. Paul Muldoon’s “Quoof” shows how the sonnet continues to provide space and time for innovators:
How often have I carried our family word
for the hot water bottle
to a strange bed,
as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick
in an old sock
to his childhood settle.
I have taken it to so many lovely heads
or laid it between us like a sword.
A hotel room in New York City
with a girl who spoke hardly any English,
my hand on her breast
like the smoldering one-off spoor of the yeti
or some other shy beast
that has yet to enter the language.
Another Poetry Genius contributorrecently issued an essay comparing the craftsmanship involved in writing a villanelle to the elaborate cross-hatching that forms the head of a lacrosse bat; it's a comparison worth bearing in mind as we think about the ostensibly basic building blocks of the villanelle, its repetitions ebbing like an incoming tide.
The first two lines of a villanelle are its backbone; they are repeated, alternately, as the closing lines of each stanza, and they're both repeated as the final two lines of the poem. Moreover, the two repeated lines have the only two rhyme sounds used across the poem’s nineteen lines. The form 'Villanelle' literally means 'farm song’, and it’s a remarkable example of how something quite folky (we often associate heavy repetition with more accessible art, e.g. “You a stupid ho / You a stupid ho”) has evolved through its practitioners to be a kind of lofty, esoteric format.
By far the most famous English villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’; I don’t have much to say about it because its execution is pretty much perfect. Instead, let’s look at Hugh Haughton’s deliberately irregular "From an Abandoned Villanelle":
In our just deserts it’s hard to do a well,
Assay the soil, dig, drill, and lay it down;
That’s why the villain loves the villanelle.
He plays on the etymology of “villanelle” to turn the act of writing one into a covert, against-the-grain poetic conceit. It’s an inspiring take on what can be seen as a fusty old form, albeit one that requires considerable talent to write.
A close relative, technically speaking, of the villanelle, the pantoum is actually an adaptation of a Malay form called the puntun, and a good example of the way literary influence is not strictly lexical; forms and rhythms can reach across languages, and, indeed, language families.
A pantoum is composed of quatrains (four line stanzas): the second and fourth lines of the first stanza are the first and third lines of the second, and so on. In the final stanza, the last line is the same as the first line of the poem, and the third line is the same as the third line of the first stanza. Its repetitions are just as intense as the villanelle’s, but it allows the writer a bit more leeway by not being so tightly compressed. A good modern example is Stuart Dischell’s “She Put on Her Lipstick in the Dark”:
I really did meet a blind girl in Paris once.
It was in the garden of a museum,
Where I saw her touching the statues.
She had brown hair and an aquamarine scarf.
It was in the garden of the museum.
I told her I was a thief disguised as a guard.
She had brown hair and an aquamarine scarf.
She told me she was a student from Grenoble.
Haiku sound like an easy format to explain: they consist of a line of five syllables, followed by a line of seven, then another line of five. This definition isn’t very useful beyond teaching schoolchildren to count syllables, though; a Japanese syllable is very different to an English one, and a Japanese phrase is different to an English poetic line. There are manifold weak haiku written to this skin-deep definition; one can only guess that their authors enjoy counting to five and seven a lot.
Nevertheless, many writers have been influenced by the twinkling, crystalline structure of haiku, and the way it almost demands to be written sequentially. Wallace Stevens, possibly the English-language poet most naturally in tune with Eastern poetics, produced the spare, head-scratchingly beautiful sequence “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, whose poems are spiritually haiku by the way they render a single penetrating insight in language that stirs up a sense of wonder:
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
A good haiku is brief, of course, only in its appearance on the page.