About Sestinas

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The Sestina

The sestina is an unrhymed form which was invented sometime toward the end of the thirteenth century by the famous Provencal troubador Arnaud Daniel. It was admired and used by Dante and Petrarch in Italy, but was not muched used in France and England before the nineteenth century. it is composed in six stanzas of six lines each in blank verse, followed by a three-line envoi, or tornada, as the refrain of a poem was called in Provencal.

Instead of rhyme, the sestina uses word repetition; the end word of each line of the first stanza is repeated in different order, in each of the following stanzas and the envoi. Originally, the end words were supposed to have a feminine ending. The end word in the last line of each stanza becomes the end word in the first line of the next stanza, a device that links the stanzas in a chain of repetition.

The arrangement of repetition is as follows:

Stanza I 1-2-3-4-5-6
Stanza II 6-1-5-2-4-3
Stanza III 3-6-4-1-2-5
Stanza IV 5-3-2-6-1-4
Stanza V 4-5-1-3-6-2
Stanza VI 2-4-6-5-3-1

The envoi contains inner repetition, as well as terminal repetition. The first line has word 2 in the middle and 5 at the end. The second line has word 4 in the middle and 3 at the end, while the third line has word 6 in the middle and 1 at the end.

Growing Up

Once I plucked berries, ripened in the sun,
Grown wild beside a little meadow spring–
The red-flushed berries smelling wild and warm,
And busy insects buzzing through the air,
My father at my side; while over yonder
And down a little hill, the swamp began.

Those sunlit days were when my life began,
My conscious life, awareness like a sun
Almost too bright to bear, that here and yonder
Were plants in earth that lived, knew how to spring
To life’s implicit rendezvous with air,
Plants that would bear as long as they were warm.

What was it kindled, made the meadow warm,
What kindled hearts, and what, since all began,
Made fuel for burning out of common air?
Like a young pagan then I hailed the sun,
Bowed down my head beside the meadow spring,
And closed my eyes against the darkness yonder–

How like a spell the word still echoes — yonder!
I soon had flead the near, the dear, the warm,
The memories beside the meadow spring;
My father dead, with whom my life began,
I hid in swamps, protected from the sun,
Breathing a strange, contaminated air.

And there, entrapped in stinking, moldy air,
I saw that one could never get to yonder,
But it receded, under moon or sun,
The swampy dark was cold, and nothing warm
Had touched my nightmare since my flight began.
I was alone, and had forgotten spring.

Or so I thought. But still some trace of spring
Was mingled in my mind. A gust of air
Blew through the swamp, and suddenly began
To sweep the poisons out. I saw, just yonder,
Through lowering trees, a vision bright and warm–
My childhood meadow in a burst of sun.

My dear, beside the meadow spring, not yonder,
In sparkling air we built a dwelling warm,
And there began a life with love our sun.

— F.S.

The Rhymed Sestina

Some writers in English have not been satisfied with the original sestina form, and have sought to make it more melodious through the addition of rhyming. Since the system of repetition provided by the traditional sestina form would produce couplet rhyming in some stanzas, which was considered undesirable, the system was changed sufficiently to avoid that calamity. Swinburne used a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b-a-b, b-a-b-a-b-a, in alternating stanzas, which provided against couplet rhyming. Swinburne’s rhymed sestina shown here has the following pattern of word repetition:

Stanza I 1-2-3-4-5-6
Stanza II 6-1-4-3-2-5
Stanza III 5-6-1-4-3-2
Stanza IV 2-5-6-1-4-3
Stanza V 3-2-1-6-5-4
Stanza VI 4-3-2-5-6-1
Envoi. 1 – – 4
2 – – 3
5 – – 6


I saw my soul at rest upon a day
As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,
Among soft leaves that give the starlight way
To touch its wings but not its eyes with light;
So that it knew as one in visions may,
And knew not as men waking, of delight.

This was the measure of my soul’s delight;
It had no power of joy to fly by day,
Nor part in the large lordship of the light;
But in a secret moon-beholden way
Had all its will of dreams and pleasant night,
And all the love and life that sleepers may.

But such life’s triumph as men waking may
It might not have to feed its faint delight
Between the stars by night and sun by day,
Shut up with green leaves and a little light;
Because its way was as a lost star’s way,
A world’s not wholly known of day or night.

All loves and dreams and sounds and gleams of night
Made it all music that such minstrels may,
And all they had they gave it of delight;
But in the full face of the fire of day
What place shall be for any starry light,
What part of heaven in all the wide sun’s way?

Yet the soul woke not, sleeping by the way,
Watched as a nursling of the large-eyed night,
And sought no strength nor knowledge of the day,
Nor closer touch conclusive of delight,
Nor mightier joy nor truer than dreamers may,
Nor more of song than they, nor more of light.

For who sleeps once and sees the secret light
Whereby sleep shows the soul a fairer way
Between the rise and rest of day and night,
Shall care no more to fare as all men may,
But be his place of pain or of delight,
There shall he dwell, beholding night as day.

Song, have thy day and take thy fill of light
Before the night be fallen across thy way;
Sing while he may, man hath no long delight.

— Algernon Charles Swinburne