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Poetry Form: Sestina

Welcome aboard, fellow poets. Please fasten your seat belts and open your minds, as we take off to the land of complex poetry and the fun adventure of the SESTINA.

Allons-y to Provence in the south of France, and back in time to the 12th Century. The form is thought to have been developed by a troubadour, “a developer of verse,” Arnault Daniel. As a troubadour, Daniel would have set his verse to music since the theme was often focused on love.

The form is quite complex and the poet is held to a number of strict requirements, based on the repetition of six words which follow a given pattern of repetition as the end words of each line.

The sestina contains six stanzas, each with six lines and concludes with a three line envoi. The pattern of the form is as follows:
1. A,B,C,D,E,F
2. F,A,E,B,D,C
3. C,F,D,A,B,E
4. E,C,B,F,A,D
5. D,E,A,C,F,B
6. B,D,F, E,C,A
7. BE, DC, FA (The envoi of three lines with BDF midline and ECA as the end lines.) Note: The Poetry Foundation gives this variation on the envoi: FB, AD, EC. Use either one.

Rather than rely on rhyme, the end line repetition creates a sense of rhyme. If you are really up for a challenge you may opt to choose rhyming end words. As for meter, it is optional, though you can work with iambs.

A key to success lies in working around a theme, thus choosing appropriate words. If you decide to try for an iambic poem, keep the end words in mind so that you end up with an accented final syllable.

Here is an example of a sestina by the Italian poet, Petrarch:

He Prays God To Guide His Frail Bark To A Safe Port.

Who is resolved to venture his vain life
On the deceitful wave and ‘mid the rocks,
Alone, unfearing death, in little bark,
Can never be far distant from his end:
Therefore betimes he should return to port
While to the helm yet answers his true sail.

The gentle breezes to which helm and sail
I trusted, entering on this amorous life,
And hoping soon to make some better port,
Have led me since amid a thousand rocks,
And the sure causes of my mournful end
Are not alone without, but in my bark.

Long cabin’d and confined in this blind bark,
I wander’d, looking never at the sail,
Which, prematurely, bore me to my end;
Till He was pleased who brought me into life
So far to call me back from those sharp rocks,
That, distantly, at last was seen my port.

As lights at midnight seen in any port,
Sometimes from the main sea by passing bark,
Save when their ray is lost ‘mid storms or rocks;
So I too from above the swollen sail
Saw the sure colours of that other life,
And could not help but sigh to reach my end.

Not that I yet am certain of that end,
For wishing with the dawn to be in port,
Is a long voyage for so short a life:
And then I fear to find me in frail bark,
Beyond my wishes full its every sail
With the strong wind which drove me on those rocks.

Escape I living from these doubtful rocks,
Or if my exile have but a fair end,
How happy shall I be to furl my sail,
And my last anchor cast in some sure port;
But, ah! I burn, and, as some blazing bark,
So hard to me to leave my wonted life.

Lord of my end and master of my life,
Before I lose my bark amid the rocks,
Direct to a good port its harass’d sail!

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Public Domain

There are other more recent examples you can find by using SESTINA as a search word in Google. I have a few on my blog and I know that other dVerse poets have written to this form as well. I trust you will find that this form is quite fun and will fit to any topic, serious or otherwise.

This is Victoria, happy to be guest hosting at dVerse, where the words pour out freely and poets encourage each to write.

To join in, write your sestina and post it on your blog or website. Copy and past the direct URL to your poem in Mr. Linky at the bottom of this post. Return to the pub to read and comment on the work of your fellow poets.