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Poetry Guide: Sestina

The sestina is a highly structured form of poetry, dating back to the 12th century. It consists of thirty-nine lines; six six-line stanzas ending with a triplet. There are no restrictions on line length, although, in English, the sestina is most commonly written in iambic pentameter or in decasyllabic meters.

In the five stanzas following the first one which sets it up; the same six words must end the six lines, in a strictly prescribed variation of order. The variation is this: if we number the six words that end the first stanza's lines as 123456, these same words will switch places in the following sequences-- 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, and 246531. The six words are then included within the lines of the concluding triplet (also called the envoy or tornada), again in a prescribed order: the first line containing 2 & 5, the second line containing 4 & 3, and the final line containing 1 & 6.

However, there seem to be more variations on the order of the use of the key words in the final tercet. Jorge de Sena, a Portuguese poet, indicates that the first line contains words 1 & 2, the second words 3 & 4, and the final line words 5 & 6, in that order. The sestina by Philip Sidney, cited below, uses this order. Other sources specify 1 & 4; 2 & 5; 3 & 6. Sestina writers seem to have felt freer to alter this part of the pattern than the strict rotation and interchange of the end words in the six sestets.

The 12th century Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel is credited with having invented the sestina form. The oldest British example of the form is a double sestina, "You Goat-Herd Gods," written by Philip Sidney. Writers such as Dante, A. C. Swinburne, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop are all noted for having written sestinas of some fame.


As an example of the way in which a sestina's end-words shift, below is a modern translation of the first two stanzas of a sestina by Dante Alighieri.

I have come, alas, to the great circle of shadow,
to the short day and to the whitening hills,
when the colour is all lost from the grass,
though my desire will not lose its green,
so rooted is it in this hardest stone,
that speaks and feels as though it were a woman.
And likewise this heaven-born woman
stays frozen, like the snow in shadow,
and is unmoved, or moved like a stone,
by the sweet season that warms all the hills,
and makes them alter from pure white to green,
so as to clothe them with the flowers and grass.

How to

Another way to understand the pattern of line ending words for a stanza, given the previous stanza works like this:

If the words at the ends of the lines of the first stanza are A, B, C, D, E, and F

End the first line of the next stanza with the word from last line of the previous one, i.e. F. End the next line with the word from the first line of the previous stanze, i.e A. Next use the word from the last line not already used (E). Next use the word from the first line not already used (B). Next use the word from the last line not already used (D). Next use the word from the first line not already used (C).

This gives the final word order: F A E B D C.

Then take this stanza as the model and perform the same transformation to get the next stanza.

In writing a sestina it is often helpful to choose end-words which can be used in more than one sense or in more than one grammatical form, e.g as both a noun and a verb.

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