The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Sestina: A tightly structured French verse form consisting of six sestets (six-line stanzas) and a three-line envoy. Widely acknowledged to be one of the most complicated verse forms, the sestina originated in medieval Provence. The six terminal words of the first stanza (1-2-3-4-5-6) are repeated in a specific and complex pattern as the terminal words in each of the succeeding stanzas (6-1-5-2-4-3; 3-6-4-1-2-5; 5-3-2-6-1-4; 4-5-1-3-6-2; and 2-4-6-5-3-1). They are also repeated in the envoy, at the end of the three lines (5-3-1) and in the middle (2-4-6). Early practitioners include Arnaut Daniel, a Provençal troubadour generally credited with inventing the form, and Italian poets Dante Alighieri and Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca). Noted practitioners in English range from the Elizabethan Sir Philip Sidney to the Victorian Algernon Charles Swinburne to the modernist Ezra Pound.

EXAMPLES: Rudyard Kipling’s regular “Sestina of the Tramp-Royal” (1896), which ends “Gawd bless this world! Whatever she ’ath done — / Excep’ when awful long — I’ve found it good. / So write, before I die, ’’E liked it all!’” Examples of sestinas with irregular envoys include Pound’s “Altaforte” (1909), which uses peace, music, clash, opposing, crimson, and rejoicing as its terminal words; W. H. Auden’s “Paysage Moralisé” (1933); and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” (1956). Kathleen Craker Firestone’s “Island Sestina” (1988) adheres strictly to the sestina pattern; the first three stanzas and the envoy follow:

There’s something magical about an island.

No other meets the feeling, quite serene,

of walking on a quiet beach of white sand

and skipping stones across the liquid blue.

The solitude is seen in wandering footprints

and heard in whispering leaves of nearby trees.

The kingbird and the bluebird perched in song trees

bring music to the silence of the island,

and chipmunks on the ground leave tiny footprints.

The flight of gulls above is so serene.

The flowers in the meadow, bells of soft blue,

and daisies spring up sweetly from the sand.

The dune is but a mountain made of beach sand.

Its borders are made green with cedar trees.

The green appears more bright against the sky’s blue

to compliment dune’s bleakness on the island.

The dune crest, place for resting, so serene,

gives way in gentle servitude to footprints.

The mood of peace serene is left by footprints.

The water, tranquil blue, caresses sand,

as songs from whispering trees praise such an island.

Patricia Smith’s sestina on Stevie Wonder, “Looking to See How the Eyes Inhabit Dark, Wondering about Light” (2012), takes the sestina form a step further, repeating the six terminal words of the first stanza not only in the prescribed pattern, but also as initial words in a chiastic design.