Sestet in Poetry: Definition & Examples

Sestet in Poetry: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:00 What Is a Sestet?
  • 1:32 Examples
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
Six lines in length, the sestet is often the hallmark conclusion of the sonnet form. In this lesson, explore these poetic concepts through a comprehensive definition and examples.

What Is a Sestet?

At its very essence, a sestet refers to any six lines of poetry, particularly if those lines form a stanza, a unit of verse in a poem, which we distinguish from other units with line breaks. In the literary world though, the term sestet has come to specifically describe the last six lines of an Italian sonnet, also known as the Petrarchan sonnet for the Italian poet, Petrarch, who was first documented to write in the form.

In the Italian sonnet form, the poet will first engineer eight lines of poetry, called an octave, often insert a line break, and then move into the six-lined sestet. What's fascinating about this structure is that the content of the octave is more objective in nature; it may present some kind of problem or dilemma. In remarkable contrast, the sestet functions as the subjective answer or response to the problem presented, thus completing a complex world of fourteen lines.

Traditionally, the rhyme scheme for an Italian sonnet is a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a (for the octave) and then includes variants on the sestet with c-d-e-c-d-e, or c-d-c-c-d-c. According to historical structure, the sestet provides the volta, the terminology for that vital turn in the sonnet which often begins with 'but,' 'yet,' or 'and yet.' Signaling a transition, almost like a breath of fresh air, the volta reveals the complexity of the world in the poem.

Examples

Although rare, poets do employ the straightforward sestet, or six-lined stanza, in their work, as opposed to the stricter bound form of the sonnet. Emily Dickinson has done this with her poem, 'Behind Me Dips Eternity.' Let's take a look at the first stanza:

Behind Me--dips Eternity--
Before Me--Immortality--
Myself--the Term between--
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin--

In this opening of the poem, Dickinson sets up the vastness of eternity by painting it as something behind and before her. Death dissolves into it so that there is only timelessness. If Dickinson had opted to insert a line break between these lines, readers might not intuit the same sheer expanse.

Let's now turn our attention to an Italian sonnet example, 'On His Blindness' by John Milton:

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