Poetic Form: Sestina

Year

2004

The sestina is a complex form that achieves its often spectacular effects through intricate repetition. The thirty-nine-line form is attributed to Arnaut Daniel, the Provencal troubadour of the twelfth century. The name "troubadour" likely comes from trobar, which means "to invent or compose verse." The troubadours sang their verses accompanied by music and were quite competitive, each trying to top the next in wit, as well as complexity and difficulty of style.

Courtly love often was the theme of the troubadours, and this emphasis continued as the sestina migrated to Italy, where Dante and Petrarch practiced the form with great reverence for Daniel, who, as Petrarch said, was "the first among all others, great master of love."

The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction. The form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words:

1. ABCDEF
2. FAEBDC
3. CFDABE
4. ECBFAD
5. DEACFB
6. BDFECA
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

The envoi, sometimes known as the tornada, must also include the remaining three end-words, BDF, in the course of the three lines so that all six recurring words appear in the final three lines. In place of a rhyme scheme, the sestina relies on end-word repetition to effect a sort of rhyme.

Many twentieth-century poets have taken on the form, including Ezra Pound and John Ashbery. In the dramatic monologue "Sestina: Altaforte," Pound, in one of his many responses to his great influence, the Victorian poet Robert Browning, adopts the voice of troubadour-warlord Bertrans de Born. The poem is a tour-de-force in the praises of war as de Born, addressing Papiols, his court minstrel, laments that he "has no life save when the swords clash." This poem is a good example of the possibilities of end-word repetition, where, in expert hands, each recurrence changes in meaning, often very subtly. Note, too, the end-words Pound chose: "peace," "music," "clash," "opposing," "crimson," and "rejoicing." The words, while general enough to lend themselves to multiple meanings, are common enough that they also present Pound with the difficult task of making every instance fresh. Here are the first two stanzas (after a prefatory stanza which sets the scene):

I
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.

II
In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When the tempests kill the earth's foul peace,
And the lightnings from black heav'n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven skies God's swords clash.

Contrast Pound’s sestina with Ashbery’s "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape," a playful romp involving the cast of the Popeye cartoon world. Ashbery deftly remixes the end-word order to great comic effect (notice the surprise in each use of "scratched") while sketching a disturbing domestic pathos, resulting in a poem both funny and melancholic. The poem, a masterful instance of the sestina, manages to also poke fun at the obsessive form.

Other notable sestinas include "Mantis" by Louis Zukofsky, "Sestina" and "A Miracle for Breakfast" by Elizabeth Bishop, "Paysage Moralise" by W.H. Auden, "Toward Autumn" by Marilyn Hacker, and "Sestina: Bob" by Jonah Winter, which employs the pedestrian name Bob for each end-word, to great comic effect. The Web version of the literary magazine McSweeney’s maintains a repository of contemporary sestinas; indeed, the sestina is the only type of poem the site will consider for publication.

There have also been several variations of the sestina form, which usually expand or contract the length. Algernon Charles Swinburne’s "The Complaint of Lisa" is a double sestina, in which twelve end-words recur across twelve twelve-line stanzas, culminating in a six-line envoi. To top things off, Swinburne took the unusual step of rhyming the end-words.

Marie Ponsot invented the "tritina," a good example of the contraction of the sestina form. Here, three end-words repeat over three three-line stanzas that marvelously compress into a single line envoi, as in her poem "Living Room," where the end-words, "frame," "break," and "cold," bed down in the final line: "Framed, it’s a wind-break. It averts the worst cold."

collected in

collection