What is a Sestina?

An examination of the history, form and use of the Sestina, a cyclical form of written poetry.

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The Sestina is a form of poetry built upon the number six: six stanzas of six lines each.

History

The creation of the Sestina is usually attributed to Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour in the 12th Century, lauded by Dante and Petrarch. Originally, he referred to the form as cledisat, which roughly translates to ‘interlock,’ however it has been suggested he merely built on a pre-existing form. Though Daniel may have originated the form, it was certainly one that underwent an evolution in the hands of fellow troubadours. While it may have originated in what is now France, it is usually attributed as an example of Italian verse, owing to the influence of Dante and Petrarch upon it.

As a troubadour style, many of the earliest examples of the verse were passed strictly orally and in early Occitan, thus the earliest example in English we have dates back to 1579. Edmund Spenser’s ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’ remains the earliest print example of an English-language Sestina, however there has lately been some suggestion that Philip Sidney’s three Sestinas may have been written beforehand, though no copies remain until much later.

Records suggest that the form didn’t particularly catch on until the tail end of the 19th Century, with John Frederick Nims noting that “…there is not a single sestina in the three volumes of the Oxford anthologies that cover the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

The interest in Sestinas began with the renewed interest in French forms around 1870. This movement was led by poets such as Andrew Lang, Austin Dobson and Edmund Gosse, with a second revival occurring in the 1930s, led by poets including W. H. Auden.

Form

The structure of the Sestina is deceptively complex. The overall rule is to write six stanzas of six lines each, and a three-line envoy. This may seem easy enough, but upon further inspection we find a more tightly prescribed form.

The last words of each line of the first stanza become repeated in subsequent stanzas, creating a spiral effect. The first end word becomes the last word of the last line of the second stanza, the second end word becomes the fifth end word of the second stanza, and the third and fourth end words swap. This pattern repeats throughout subsequent verses in a “bottoming-up” pairing.

In a final flourish, the end tercet includes all the end words of the previous stanzas. While some would insist that there is a prescribed order which the words must fit, this has fallen out of fashion and is no longer required.

Use

As with many examples of troubadour verse, there is a focus on love when this form is used. The use of repetition, especially in a spiral, suggests a peculiar kind of obsession. Though this can mean the form speaks of true love or love of the highest order, the more mischievous poet may seek to subvert this, writing of stalkers and the maddening effect of love upon the mind.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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