Understanding the Sestina Poem Form: Definition and Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


As a lover of words, you might be familiar with different forms of poetry, but have you ever stumbled upon the term 'sestina'? If not, you're in for a treat today! We're going to learn about this intriguing poetry form, its history, how it's structured, and even how to write one yourself. Trust me, by the end of this read, you'll have a clear definition of sestina under your belt.

What is a Sestina?

Before we jump into the nitty-gritty details, let's get a basic understanding of what a sestina actually is. In the simplest terms, a sestina is a type of poem that follows a very specific structure.

Definition of Sestina

A sestina is a complex, yet beautiful form of poetry. It consists of six stanzas, each with six lines, and a final triplet, known as an envoi. The same six words end the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but they appear in a different, specific sequence each time. In the closing envoi, all six words make an appearance again. This unique structure makes the sestina a fun and challenging form of poetry to both read and write.

Origin of the Word

Now, where does the word 'sestina' come from? It's actually derived from the Italian word 'sestina', which means 'sixth'. This makes a lot of sense when you think about the structure of the poem — six stanzas, six lines, and six end words. It's all about the number six!

Why Write a Sestina?

With its complex structure, you might be wondering why anyone would choose to write a sestina. Well, many poets find that the repeated end words and the strict sequence create a rhythm and a sense of continuity, which can add depth and meaning to their poems. Plus, it's always a thrill to overcome a challenge, isn't it? So, if you're up for a creative challenge, writing a sestina might just be the thing for you!

History of the Sestina

Now that we've got the basic definition of sestina sorted, let's delve into its fascinating history. You might be surprised to find out that the sestina is not a recent invention. In fact, it dates back to the 12th century!

Origins of the Sestina

The sestina was invented by a troubadour named Arnaut Daniel, who was known for his complex and experimental verses. He lived in Provence, France, during the 12th century and was admired by many other poets of his era. The first known sestina, "Lo ferm voler qu'el cor m'intra", was penned by him and thus, the sestina was born.

The Sestina's Journey Through Time

The sestina was not confined to France for long. It quickly spread to Italy, where Dante and Petrarch - two of the most famous Italian poets - embraced the form. From there, it continued its journey, reaching England by the 16th century. It has remained a popular form of poetry ever since, cherished by poets for its unique structure and the creative challenge it presents.

Famous Sestinas

Throughout history, many well-known poets have tried their hand at this form of poetry. Some notable examples include "Sestina" by Elizabeth Bishop, "The Complaint of Lisa" by Algernon Charles Swinburne, and "Payday Loans" by David Trinidad. These poets, among others, have shown how the sestina can be used to express a wide range of themes and emotions.

As you can see, the sestina has a rich history, having been embraced by poets from various periods and cultures. So, the next time you read or write a sestina, remember that you're participating in a centuries-old tradition!

Structure of a Sestina

After exploring the history of the sestina, you're probably wondering about its structure. Well, hold onto your hats because the sestina is known for its distinct and intricate pattern. But don't worry, it's easier to understand than you might think.

The Basic Framework

A sestina is a poem composed of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line stanza, known as an envoi or tornada. That's a total of 39 lines. But that's not all. The unique part about a sestina is its complex repetition of end words.

End Word Scheme

In a sestina, the end words of the first stanza are repeated in a specific pattern in the following stanzas. The pattern goes like this: 1-2-3-4-5-6, 6-1-5-2-4-3, 3-6-4-1-2-5, 5-3-2-6-1-4, 4-5-1-3-6-2, 2-4-6-5-3-1. This might sound like an algebra problem, but once you get the hang of it, you'll find it's quite a fun puzzle!

The Envoi

In the three-line envoi, the six end words are also repeated, but in a slightly different way. They appear two per line, in the pattern 2-5, 4-3, 6-1. So, the final three lines encapsulate the essence of the sestina, wrapping up the poem in a neat, satisfying package.

So, while the sestina might initially seem daunting, it's really just a matter of understanding its unique structure. Once you master this, you're well on your way to creating your own sestina masterpiece!

How to Write a Sestina

Now that we've explored the structure of a sestina, let's dive into how to actually write one. You might be thinking, "That's a lot of rules to remember!" And you're right. But writing a sestina is like baking a cake from a recipe, once you know the ingredients and steps, it's just a matter of putting it all together.

Choose Your End Words Carefully

First things first: choosing the right end words. Since these words will be repeated throughout your poem, make sure they're versatile. Words that can be used as different parts of speech (like "light" or "spring") can add to the richness of your sestina and make the repetition less noticeable.

Plan Your Stanzas

Now, get a piece of paper and number it from one to six. Write down your chosen end words next to each number. Remember, these words will follow a specific pattern in each stanza, so keep the pattern handy for reference. This gives you a roadmap for your sestina.

Embrace the Repetition

When you start writing, embrace the repetition. It's okay if your end words seem to stand out at first. As you continue, they'll start to blend into the fabric of your poem. The beauty of a sestina lies in the repetition of these end words, which create a rhythm and continuity throughout your poem.

Write the Envoi

Finally, it's time to wrap up your sestina with the envoi. This three-line stanza should encapsulate the core of your poem and tie everything together neatly. Remember to include your end words in the pattern 2-5, 4-3, 6-1. It's like the cherry on top of your sestina sundae!

So there you have it: the recipe to write a sestina. It might be a bit challenging at first, but with practice, you'll be whipping up sestina poems like a pro!

Examples of Sestina Poems

Now that we've explored the ins and outs of writing a sestina, let's take a look at some examples. This will help you better understand the sestina form and how it comes to life in a poem. It's always helpful to learn from the masters, right?

Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina"

First up, we have "Sestina" by Elizabeth Bishop. One of the most famous examples of a sestina, Bishop's poem beautifully captures the essence of this form. Her end words are: house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, and tears. Notice how she uses these words in different contexts throughout the poem, giving them new meanings each time.

John Ashbery's "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape"

The next example is "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" by John Ashbery. This quirky sestina features the characters from the Popeye comic strip. Ashbery's end words are: you, see, button, landscape, rutabaga, and spinach. See how he weaves these words throughout the poem, creating a playful and unusual sestina.

Dante's "The Divine Comedy"

Finally, let's look at a classic example, Dante's "The Divine Comedy". The entire epic is a sestina! It's a testament to the power of this form that Dante could sustain it over such a long work. The end words change with each canto, but the structure remains the same. It's a masterclass in sestina writing.

These examples illustrate the flexibility and potential of the sestina form. From the personal to the playful, from the short to the epic, the sestina can accommodate a wide range of themes and styles. So why not give it a try? You might just find that the sestina is the perfect form for your poetic expression.

If you enjoyed learning about the Sestina poem form and want to further develop your poetry writing skills, check out the workshop '10 Minute Poetry Challenge: THINK LESS, WRITE MORE!' by Alieu Drammeh. This workshop will help you unleash your creativity and write more poetry with confidence, in just 10 minutes a day.