Understanding the Sestina Poetic Form

This Challenging Structure Weaves Through the Stanzas

Color Rhymes in Yarn
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The sestina is a challenging poetic form in which, rather than simply rhyming, the actual line-ending words are repeated in successive stanzas in a designated rotating order. A sestina consists of six stanzas of six lines each, ending with a three-line “envoi,” which incorporates all the line-ending words, some hidden inside the closing lines. The prescribed pattern for using the six line-ending words is:

1st stanza: 1 2 3 4 5 6

2nd stanza: 6 1 5 2 4 3

3rd stanza: 3 6 4 1 2 5

4th stanza: 5 3 2 6 1 4

5th stanza: 4 5 1 3 6 2

6th stanza: 2 4 6 5 3 1

Envoi: 2--5 4--3 6--1

A Troubadour's Song

Like the sonnet, the sestina dates back to the Middle Ages and is thought to be the invention of Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour who sang about courtly love on his way through Provence, France, in the 12th century. The form was adopted by the Italian poets of the Renaissance -- Dante and Petrarch -- and has been used by poets ever since. Other writers of sestinas include Sir Philip Sidney, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop.

Ezra Pound's Powerful Words

Pound's "Altaforte"  shows the powerful effect of repeated end words in the first two stanzas of his sestina (which continues in the remaining stanzas). Also, note how the repeated words are used in different contexts:

"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 light’nings 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."