Sestina: Definition, Format & Poem Examples

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Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Want to broaden your poetic repertoire? Or maybe you just think 'sestina' is a funny word? Either way, come learn more about this complex poetic form and encounter some poems of its kind.

Six by Six: Defining Sestina

What are the types of poems you're most familiar with? Maybe you've heard of haikus and limericks, or if you've studied Shakespeare at all, you've probably seen your share of sonnets. Each of these can be defined by its characteristics of form, and it's no different with the sestina.

Also called a sextain, the sestina gets its name from its form, which is comprised of six stanzas containing six lines each. From there, though, the format of this type of poem gets much more complicated, so let's jump right into figuring out exactly how sestinas work.

Format of a Sestina

With only minor variations over time, the format of the sestina has been the same since its creation in France during the 13th century. However, since it's doubtful that many of us can read Old Occitan (Provencal) from the 1200s, we'll look at Ezra Pound's 'Sestina: Altaforte' to see precisely how one constructs such a poem:

'Stanza 1

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.

Stanza 2

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.

Stanza 3

Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour's stour than a year's peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there's no wine like the blood's crimson!

Stanza 7

And let the music of the swords make them crimson!
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
Hell blot black for always the thought 'Peace!' '

Do you notice anything strange about the last words in each line? Does it seem they keep showing up throughout the poem? This is one of the sestina's most intricate and defining features. Instead of having a regular rhyme scheme (i.e. like you would find in a sonnet), sestinas repeat the words that end the six lines of the first stanza at the ends of lines in the remainder of the poem. However, it's not as simple as just repetition.

You may have noticed that the six end-words are used in a specific pattern in the rest of the stanzas, and this pattern depends on the order in which the words appear in the first stanza. In this example from Pound, we have 'peace,' 'music,' 'clash,' 'opposing,' 'crimson' and 'rejoicing.' Let's assign these words the letters A through F, respectively, so we can more easily discuss them.

The pattern in which the words are repeated starts with the last word of the previous stanza (F), followed by the first end-word (A), followed by the next-to-last (E), then the second end-word (B), etc. This diagram depicts the end-word pattern for each full (six-line) stanza in a sestina. So, if the first stanza has these words in the order ABCDEF, then the second should have them in the order FAEBDC.

If we look at the end words for the second stanza here, we find that 'rejoicing,' 'peace,' 'crimson,' 'music,' 'opposing' and 'clash' appear in that order and so follow the appropriate pattern. Likewise, the third stanza follows the same concept, rearranging the order of the second stanza to become CFDABE and leaving us with the end-word order of 'clash,' 'rejoicing,' 'opposing,' 'peace,' 'music' and 'crimson.' This pattern continues throughout the poem, even in the final stanza.

Sestinas are supposed to have six stanzas, right? Well, they also typically have a final stanza that is shorter than all the rest known as an envoi (French for 'sending away'). These shorter ending stanzas can be used in other forms of poetry (i.e. ballads) as well, but that of the sestina is always three lines long, giving the poem a total of 39 lines. It also must follow the end-word pattern; but, since it only has half the lines, the poet can choose which three of these words actually end the lines. Nevertheless, all of the end words are supposed to appear somewhere in the final stanza, even though Pound left out 'opposing' and 'rejoicing' from his own envoi.

Now that we've seen how a sestina works, let's see if we can figure out what sort of effects its format would have in these examples.

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