Heather Comfort, Jenny Dobbins, Tracy Singer
The inventor of the sestina, Arnaut Daniel, belonged to a group of twelfth-century poets--the troubadours--who needed, for their fame and fortune, to shock, delight, and entertain. . . The troubadours first appear in southern France in the twelfth century. Their name is most certainly extracted from the verb trobar--meaning "to invent or compose verse." They were famous, celebrated, much in fashion, and eventually very influential on the European poetry of the next few centuries. . . They sang--their poems were always accompanied by music--for French nobles like the Duke of Aquitaine or the Count of Poitiers. They competed with one another to produce the wittiest, most elaborate, most difficult styles. This difficult, complex style was called the trobar clus. The easier, more open one was called the trobar leu. The sestina was part of the trobar clus. It was the form for a master troubadour.
--from The Making of a Poem, by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
What Some Critics Say
Neil Querengesser acknowledges that the form "has been attributed to" Daniel, a poet and mathematician of the 12th Century, although he may not be the inventor. Charles Jernigan has interpreted an early Daniel sestina as "mocking those formulaic troubadour sentiments by grinding them against the most disconcerting sexual reality, and, by twisting . . . them into his newly invented sestina form, he was also making fun of the difficult and complex types of verse, including his own" (Querengesser). The end words of this sestina ("Lo ferm voler q'el cor m'intra") are: soul, chamber, nail, uncle, rod, and enter--words which de-romanticize (who can argue with uncle) and/or sexualize the poem. The Italian word for rod, verga, it is noted, adds to the poem yet another layer: the word also means "virgin."
Although the sestina was out of fashion from the Renaissance to the Victorian era, there has been a resurgence of the form. Neil Querengesser reports that it became popular again, in part, because of critics such as Paul Cummins and Marianne Shapiro. However, his assertion implies that literary criticism drives the poems that are written. In "The Sestina in the 20th Century," Cummins posits that extreme order is what has drawn contemporary writers to the sestina because, in short, they live in "confusion and alarm, or metaphysical uncertainty and despair" (199). But sources such as Encyclopedia Britannica (cited below) do not acknowledge the sestina as a trend among contemporary writers.
Like the form's supposed inventor, contemporary poet Dana Gioia mocks the simple, fill-in-the-blank feel of the structure in "My Confessional Sestina":
Where will it end? This grim cycle of workshops
churning out poems for little magazines
no one honestly finds to their taste?
This ever-lengthening column of contributors
scavenging the land for more students
teaching them to write their boot-camp sestinas?
--from The Gods of Winter
Other writers of sestinas include W.H. Auden (there are about 7), David Wojahn ("Floating Houses"), James K. Baxter ("Sestina of the River"), and John Ashbery ("Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape"). Querengesser finds in such poems "a sense of order, resolution, and stability" and also "contrasting states of sanity/insanity." Sestinas, he says, can be subversions which in the end reinforce structure.
Definition of the Sestina
--from the Encyclopedia Britannica (Britannica.com):
An elaborate verse form employed by medieval Provençal and Italian, and occasional modern, poets. It consists, in its pure medieval form, of six stanzas of blank verse, each of six lines--hence the name. The final words of the first stanza appear in varied order in the other five, the order used by the Provençals being: abcdef, faebdc, cfdabe, ecbfad, deacfb, bdfeca. Following these was a stanza of three lines, in which the six key words were repeated in the middle and at the end of the lines, summarizing the poem or dedicating it to some person. The sestina was invented by the Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel and was used in Italy by Dante and Petrarch, after which it fell into disuse until revived by the 16th-century French Pléiade, particularly Pontus de Tyard. In the 19th century, Ferdinand, comte de Gramont, wrote a large number of sestinas, and Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Complaint of Lisa" is an astonishing tour de force--a double sestina of 12 stanzas of 12 lines each. In the 20th century, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden wrote noteworthy sestinas.
The Form of the Sestina
--(from Turco, The New Book of Forms)
The sestina is a French form, syllabic originally but often adapted to accentual-syllabic lines in English verse. It consists of 39 lines divided into 6 sestets and one triplet, called the envoi. It is normally unrhymed--instead, the six end-words of the first stanza are picked up and reused as the end-words of the following stanzas in a specific order. In the envoi, one end-word is buried in each line, and one is at the end of each line. Lines can be of any single length.
Each stanza repeats the end-words in the order 615243. The easiest way to describe the repetition is through a list; the actual reason or meaning of the repetition has been lost. The end words repeat as follows (numbers are the lines of the poem, and capital letters stand for the six end-words).
D C envoi
For Further Reading: An Almost-Bibliography
Cummins, Paul. "The Sestina in the 20th Century." Concerning Poetry. 11:1 (1978): 15-23.
Druce, Robert. "Information Control and Making: The Pragmatics of a Sestina." Word and Image: A Journal . . . 5:3 (July-Sept. 1989): 292-9.
Jernigan, John C. "The Sestina in Province, Italy, France, and England, 1180-1660." Diss. (College), 1971. Ann Arbor: (Publisher), (1971) 6554A-55A.
Querengeser, Neil. "Attractions of the Contemporary Sestina." English Studies in Canada 18:2 (June 1992): 199-213.
Shapiro, Marianne. Hieroglyph of Time.
For an interview with Dana Gioia, see http://gloria-brame.com/glory/gioia2.htm.
Example of a Sestina
by Ezra Pound
Loquitur: En Bertrans de Born. Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer-up of strife. Eccovi! Judge ye! Have I dug him up again? The scene is at his castle, Altaforte.
"Papiols" is his jouleur. "The Leopard," the device of Richard (Coeur de Lion).
Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let¹s to music!
I have no life save when swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair,purple,opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howel I my heart nigh mad rejoying.
In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When tempests kill the earth¹s foul peace,
And the light¹nings from black heav¹n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven God¹s swords clash.
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 hour¹s stour than a year¹s peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there¹s no wine like the blood¹s crimson!
And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears throught he dark clash
and it fills my heart with rejoycing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might gainst all darkmess opposing.
The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But it is fit only to rotin womanish peace
Far from where worth¹s won and the swords clash
For the death of sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.
Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There¹s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle¹s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges gainst "The Leopard's" rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry "Peace!"
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"!