The Sestina


Basic features & history of the verse form:
Number of lines 39
Structure / divisions Six sestets followed by a three-line envoi
Rhyme scheme None — the sestina depends not on rhyme, but on the repetition of end-words used in a fixed order*
Meter n English, usually iambic pentameter
Refrain line or lines No
Time / place of origin 12th-century Provence
Medieval / Renaissance poets
  associated with this form
Arnaut Daniel, Dante, Petrarch, Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney
Examples written in English
  by or before —
16th century (Spenser)


An example of a sestina:

Since Wailing is a Bud of Causeful Sorrow
by Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

      1  (1)  Since wailing is a bud of causeful sorrow,
      2  (2)  Since sorrow is the follower of ill fortune,
      3  (3)  Since no ill fortune equals public damage,
      4  (4)  Now prince's loss hath made our damage public,
      5  (5)  Sorrow pay we unto the rights of Nature,
      6  (6)  And inward grief seal up with outward wailing.
      7  (6)  Why should we spare our voice from endless wailing,
      8  (1)  Who justly make our hearts the seats of sorrow,
      9  (5)  In such a case where it appears that Nature
    10  (2)  Doth add her force unto the sting of fortune,
    11  (4)  Choosing alas, this our theatre public,
    12  (3)  Where they would leave trophies of cruel damage?
    13  (3)  Then since such pow'rs conspire unto our damage
    14  (6)  (Which may be known, but never helped with wailing)
    15  (4)  Yet let us leave a monument in public,
    16  (1)  Of willing tears, torn hair, and cries of sorrow.
    17  (2)  For lost, lost is by blow of cruel fortune
    18  (5)  Arcadia's gem, the noblest child of Nature.
    19   5)  O Nature doting old, O blinded Nature,
    20  (3)  How hast thou torn thyself, sought thine own damage,
    21  (2)  In granting such a scope to filthy fortune,
    22  (6)  By thy imp's loss to fill the world with wailing!
    23  (1)  Cast thy stepmother eyes upon our sorrow,
    24  (4)  Public our loss: so, see, thy shame is public.
    25  (4)  O that we had, to make our woes more public,
    26  (5)  Seas in our eyes, and brazen tongues by nature,
    27  (1)  A yelling voice, and hearts composed of sorrow,
    28  (3)  Breath made of flames, wits knowing naught but damage,
    29  (6)  Our sports murd'ring ourselves, our musics wailing,
    30  (2)  Our studies fixed upon the falls of fortune.
    31  (2)  No, no, our mischief grows in this vile fortune,
    32  (4)  That private pangs cannot breathe out in public
    33  (6)  The furious inward griefs with hellish wailing;
    34  (5)  But forced are to burden feeble Nature
    35  (3)  With secret sense of our eternal damage,
    36  (1)  And sorrow feed, feeding our souls with sorrow.
    37  ([1], 2)  Since sorrow then concludeth all our fortune,
    38  ([3], 4)  With all our deaths show we this damage public.
    39  ([5], 6)  His nature fears to die who lives still wailing.


* The prescribed order for the repetition of the six key words in the sestina is as follows:

First stanza: 1-2-3-4-5-6
Second stanza: 6-1-5-2-4-3
Third stanza: 3-6-4-1-2-5
Fourth stanza: 5-3-2-6-1-4
Fifth stanza: 4-5-1-3-6-2
Sixth stanza: 2-4-6-5-3-1

The order in which the key words appear in the envoi varies. In Dante's first sestina, the words in the envoi appear in the order (2)-1-(4)-6-(5)-3. (Numbers shown in parentheses indicate key words buried within the lines of the envoi.) In Petrarch's fourth sestina, the key-word order of the envoi is (4)-1-(3)-2-(5)-6; in his fifth, the order is (1)-2-(3)-4-(5)-6


A Brief Guide to Some Medieval and Renaissance Verse Forms

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Table, its contents and notes copyright 2002 by Jennifer M. Tom    ( Jennifer Monroe Franson )