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The Best Sestinas of All Time

Which poets wrote the best sestinas? The sestina (aka as the "sestine," "sextine," and "sextain") is a verse form most commonly consisting of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern.

The oldest-known sestina is "Lo ferm voler qu'el cor m'intra," written around 1200 by Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour of Aquitanian origin; he refered to it as "cledisat," meaning "interlock." Daniel is generally considered to be the form's inventor, although it has been suggested that he may have innovated within a preexisting form. Other early sestinas are "Eras, pus vey mon benastruc" by Guilhem Peire Cazals de Caortz and "Ben gran avoleza intra" by Bertran de Born. These early sestinas were written in Old Occitan (the first Romance language and the language of the first troubadours; it evolved from Vulgar Latin in the south of France).

The sestina crossed over into Italian with Dante and Petrarch in the 13th century; by the 15th century, it was being used in Portuguese by Luís de Camões. The sestina was re-imported into France from Italy in the 16th century. Pontus de Tyard was the first poet to attempt the form in French, and the only one known to have done so prior to the 19th century.

The first appearance of the sestina in English print is "Ye wastefull woodes," comprising lines 151–89 of the August Æglogue in Edmund Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar, published in 1579. Although they appeared in print later, Philip Sidney's three sestinas may have been written earlier, and are often credited as being the first in English. Another early English sestina, found toward the end of Book I of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, circa 1590, is the double sestina "Ye Goatherd Gods." Another early sestina, "Since wailing is a bud of causeful sorrow," is in the most common form. Like "Ye Goatherd Gods" it is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter and uses exclusively feminine endings, reflecting the Italian endecasillabo. "Farewell, O sun, Arcadia's clearest light," is the first rhyming sestina in English. William Drummond published two sestinas (which he called "sextains") in 1616, employing the form of Sidney's rhyming sestina. After this, there is an absence of notable sestinas for over 250 years. In the 1870s there was a revival of interest in French forms, led by Andrew Lang, Austin Dobson, Edmund Gosse, W. E. Henley, John Payne, and others. The earliest sestina of this period is Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Sestina." Swinburne also wrote a double sestina, "The Complaint of Lisa." Starting in the 1930s, another revival of the form took place across the English-speaking world, led by well-known poets such as W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop and Ezra Pound.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

by Elizabeth Bishop

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

A Miracle for Breakfast
by Elizabeth Bishop

At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
—like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds—along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
—I saw it with one eye close to the crumb—

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

I saw my soul at rest upon a day
      As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,
Among soft leaves that give the starlight way
      To touch its wings but not its eyes with light;
So that it knew as one in visions may,
      And knew not as men waking, of delight.

This was the measure of my soul's delight;
      It had no power of joy to fly by day,
Nor part in the large lordship of the light;
      But in a secret moon-beholden way
Had all its will of dreams and pleasant night,
      And all the love and life that sleepers may.

But such life's triumph as men waking may
      It might not have to feed its faint delight
Between the stars by night and sun by day,
      Shut up with green leaves and a little light;
Because its way was as a lost star's way,
      A world's not wholly known of day or night.

All loves and dreams and sounds and gleams of night
      Made it all music that such minstrels may,
And all they had they gave it of delight;
      But in the full face of the fire of day
What place shall be for any starry light,
      What part of heaven in all the wide sun's way?

Yet the soul woke not, sleeping by the way,
      Watched as a nursling of the large-eyed night,
And sought no strength nor knowledge of the day,
      Nor closer touch conclusive of delight,
Nor mightier joy nor truer than dreamers may,
      Nor more of song than they, nor more of light.

For who sleeps once and sees the secret light
      Whereby sleep shows the soul a fairer way
Between the rise and rest of day and night,
      Shall care no more to fare as all men may,
But be his place of pain or of delight,
      There shall he dwell, beholding night as day.

Song, have thy day and take thy fill of light
      Before the night be fallen across thy way;
Sing while he may, man hath no long delight.

by Dante Alighieri

I have come, alas, to the great circle of shadow,
to the short day and to the whitening hills,
when the colour is all lost from the grass,
though my desire will not lose its green,
so rooted is it in this hardest stone,
that speaks and feels as though it were a woman.

And likewise this heaven-born woman
stays frozen, like the snow in shadow,
and is unmoved, or moved like a stone,
by the sweet season that warms all the hills,
and makes them alter from pure white to green,
so as to clothe them with the flowers and grass.

When her head wears a crown of grass
she draws the mind from any other woman,
because she blends her gold hair with the green
so well that Amor lingers in their shadow,
he who fastens me in these low hills,
more certainly than lime fastens stone.

Her beauty has more virtue than rare stone.
The wound she gives cannot be healed with grass,
since I have travelled, through the plains and hills,
to find my release from such a woman,
yet from her light had never a shadow
thrown on me, by hill, wall, or leaves’ green.

I have seen her walk all dressed in green,
so formed she would have sparked love in a stone,
that love I bear for her very shadow,
so that I wished her, in those fields of grass,
as much in love as ever yet was woman,
closed around by all the highest hills.

The rivers will flow upwards to the hills
before this wood, that is so soft and green,
takes fire, as might ever lovely woman,
for me, who would choose to sleep on stone,
all my life, and go eating grass,
only to gaze at where her clothes cast shadow.

Whenever the hills cast blackest shadow,
with her sweet green, the lovely woman
hides it, as a man hides stone in grass.

Sestina: Altaforte
by Ezra Pound

LOQUITUR: En Bertrans de Born.
Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer up of strife.
Judge ye!
Have I dug him up again?

The scene is at his castle, Altaforte.
"Papiols" is his jongleur.
"The Leopard" is the device of Richard Coeur de Lion.


Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let's to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howls my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.


In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When the tempests kill the earth's foul peace,
And the lightnings from black heav'n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven skies God's 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 hour's stour than a year's peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there's no wine like the blood's crimson!


And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears through the dark clash
And it fills all my heart with rejoicing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might 'gainst all darkness opposing.


The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth's won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.


Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There's no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle's 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!"

Paysage Moralisé
by W. H. Auden

Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,
Seeing at end of street the barren mountains,
Round corners coming suddenly on water,
Knowing them shipwrecked who were launched for islands,
We honour founders of these starving cities
Whose honour is the image of our sorrow,

Which cannot see its likeness in their sorrow
That brought them desperate to the brink of valleys;
Dreaming of evening walks through learned cities
They reined their violent horses on the mountains,
Those fields like ships to castaways on islands,
Visions of green to them who craved for water.

They built by rivers and at night the water
Running past windows comforted their sorrow;
Each in his little bed conceived of islands
Where every day was dancing in the valleys
And all the green trees blossomed on the mountains,
Where love was innocent, being far from cities.

But dawn came back and they were still in cities;
No marvellous creature rose up from the water;
There was still gold and silver in the mountains
But hunger was a more immediate sorrow,
Although to moping villagers in valleys
Some waving pilgrims were describing islands …

'The gods,' they promised, 'visit us from islands,
Are stalking, head-up, lovely, through our cities;
Now is the time to leave your wretched valleys
And sail with them across the lime-green water,
Sitting at their white sides, forget your sorrow,
The shadow cast across your lives by mountains.’

So many, doubtful, perished in the mountains,
Climbing up crags to get a view of islands,
So many, fearful, took with them their sorrow
Which stayed them when they reached unhappy cities,
So many, careless, dived and drowned in water,
So many, wretched, would not leave their valleys.

It is our sorrow. Shall it melt? Then water
Would gush, flush, green these mountains and these valleys,
And we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.

Sestina of the Tramp-Royal
by Rudyard Kipling

Speakin' in general, I 'ave tried 'em all,
The 'appy roads that take you o'er the world.
Speakin' in general, I 'ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get 'ence, the same as I 'ave done,
An' go observin' matters till they die.

What do it matter where or 'ow we die,
So long as we've our 'ealth to watch it all—
The different ways that different things are done,
An' men an' women lovin' in this world—
Takin' our chances as they come along,
An' when they ain't, pretendin' they are good?

In cash or credit—no, it aren't no good;
You 'ave to 'ave the 'abit or you'd die,
Unless you lived your life but one day long,
Nor didn't prophesy nor fret at all,
But drew your tucker some'ow from the world,
An' never bothered what you might ha' done.

But, Gawd, what things are they I 'aven't done?
I've turned my 'and to most, an' turned it good,
In various situations round the world—
For 'im that doth not work must surely die;
But that's no reason man should labour all
'Is life on one same shift; life's none so long.

Therefore, from job to job I've moved along.
Pay couldn't 'old me when my time was done,
For something in my 'ead upset me all,
Till I 'ad dropped whatever 'twas for good,
An', out at sea, be'eld the dock-lights die,
An' met my mate—the wind that tramps the world!

It's like a book, I think, this bloomin' world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you're readin' done,
An' turn another—likely not so good;
But what you're after is to turn 'em all.

Gawd bless this world! Whatever she 'ath done—
Excep' when awful long—I've found it good.
So write, before I die, "'E liked it all!"

Two Lorries
by Seamus Heaney

It's raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.
There are tyre-marks in the yard, Agnew's old lorry
Has all its cribs down and Agnew the coalman
With his Belfast accent's sweet-talking my mother.
Would she ever go to a film in Magherafelt?
But it's raining and he still has half the load

To deliver farther on. This time the lode
Our coal came from was silk-black, so the ashes
Will be the silkiest white. The Magherafelt
(Via Toomebridge) bus goes by. The half-stripped lorry
With its emptied, folded coal-bags moves my mother:
The tasty ways of a leather-aproned coalman!

And films no less! The conceit of a coalman ...
She goes back in and gets out the black lead
And emery paper, this nineteen-forties mother,
All business round her stove, half-wiping ashes
With a backhand from her cheek as the bolted lorry
Gets revved and turned and heads for Magherafelt

And the last delivery. Oh, Magherafelt!
Oh, dream of red plush and a city coalman
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes ...
After that happened, I'd a vision of my mother,

A revenant on the bench where I would meet her
In that cold-floored waiting room in Magherafelt,
Her shopping bags full up with shovelled ashes.
Death walked out past her like a dust-faced coalman
Refolding body-bags, plying his load
Empty upon empty, in a flurry

Of motes and engine-revs, but which lorry
Was it now? Young Agnew's or that other,
Heavier, deadlier one, set to explode
In a time beyond her time in Magherafelt ...
So tally bags and sweet-talk darkness, coalman,
Listen to the rain spit in new ashes

As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt,
Then reappear from your lorry as my mother's
Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes.
'lorry': British for truck
'cribs': hinged sides
'Magherafelt': (pronounced Mackerafelt) a town in Northern Ireland
'lode': a vein or seam rich in minerals; in this case, coal
'black lead': preparation for polishing the exterior of black iron stoves
'emery paper': sandpaper used for smoothing rough surfaces
'bolted': the lorry's sides were put up and locked into place
'red plush': for many people the red velvety seats in cinemas represented luxury
'payload': profit-making cargo; the term is also used for the explosive capacity of a bomber
'revenant': ghost
'motes': dust
'tally bags': coal sacks marked so they can be counted and checked off
'heft': lift
'dreamboat': 1940s word for a highly attractive member of the opposite sex
'filmed': covered with a film of ashes (but the idea of a cinema film—black and white in the 1940s—is also present)
In 1801, under the Act of Union, Ireland was united with the rest of Britain, but the government paid little attention to Ireland's social and economic problems. Catholics continued to be disadvantaged. Their discontent inspired nationalism, and the struggle for Irish freedom (Home Rule) escalated. In 1919 the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was founded. In 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed and Ireland was divided in two. Six of the nine counties of Ulster became Northern Ireland, part of the UK. The rest of the country became the Irish Free State (later Eire, and then the Republic of Ireland). The IRA continued its fight for a unified Ireland. In Northern Ireland, most Protestants were determined to remain British; but a third of Northern Ireland's population were Catholics. They suffered from Protestant discrimination, which led to the growth of a strong civil rights movement in the 1960s. Both sides contained hardline militants who campaigned with violence, and in1966 the Ulster Volunteer Force declared war on the IRA. In 1968 the period known as the Troubles began. After riots and armed attacks in Ulster, the British government sent in troops. Years of violence followed in which thousands, many of them innocent bystanders, were killed. One of the many towns subjected to IRA bomb attacks was Magherafelt. Seamus Heaney was born on a farm not far from Magherafelt, in 1939.

Ye Goat-herd Gods
by Sir Philip Sidney (1590)

Ye Goatherd gods, that love the grassy mountains,
Ye nymphs which haunt the springs in pleasant valleys,
Ye satyrs joyed with free and quiet forests,
Vouchsafe your silent ears to plaining music,
Which to my woes gives still an early morning,
And draws the dolor on till weary evening.

O Mercury, foregoer to the evening,
O heavenly huntress of the savage mountains,
O lovely star, entitled of the morning
While that my voice doth fill these woeful valleys,
Vouchsafe your silent ears to plaining music,
Which oft hath Echo tired in secret forests.

I that was once free burgess of the forests,
Where shade from Sun, and sport I sought in evening,
I, that was once esteemed for pleasant music,
Am banished now among the monstrous mountains
Of huge despair, and foul affliction’s valleys,
Am grown a screech-owl to myself each morning.

I that was once delighted every morning
Hunting the wild inhabiters of forests,
I, that was once the music of these valleys
So darkened am, that all my day is evening,
Heart-broken so, that molehills seem high mountains,
And fill the vales with cries instead of music.

Long since alas, my deadly swannish music
Hath made itself a crier of the morning
And hath with wailing strength climbed highest mountains;
Long since my thoughts more desert be than forests,
Long since I see my joys come to their evening,
And state thrown down to over-trodden valleys.

Long since the happy dwellers of these valleys
Have prayed me leave my strange exclaiming music,
Which troubles their day’s work, and joys of evening;
Long since I hate the night, more hate the morning;
Long since my thoughts chase me like beasts in forests,
And make me wish myself laid under mountains.

Meseems I see the high and stately mountains
Transform themselves to low dejected valleys;
Meseems I hear in these ill-changed forests
The nightingales do learn of owls their music;
Meseems I feel the comfort of the morning
Turned to the mortal serene of an evening.

Meseems I see a filthy cloudy evening
As soon as sun begins to climb the mountains;
Meseems I feel a noisome scent, the morning
When I do smell the flowers of these valleys;
Meseems I hear, when I do hear sweet music,
The dreadful cries of murdered men in forests.

I wish to fire the trees of all these forests;
I give the sun a last farewell each evening;
I curse the fiddling finders-out of music;
With envy I do hate the lofty mountains
And with despite despise the humble valleys;
I do detest night, evening, day, and morning.

Curse to myself my prayer is, the morning;
My fire is more than can be made with forests,
My state more base than are the basest valleys;
I wish no evenings more to see, each evening;
Shamed, I hate myself in sight of mountains
And stop mine ears, lest I grow mad with music.

For she, whose parts maintained a perfect music,
Whose beauties shined more than the blushing morning,
Who much did pass in state the stately mountains,
In straightness passed the cedars of the forests,
Hath cast me, wretch, into eternal evening
By taking her two suns from these dark valleys.

For she, with whom compared, the Alps are valleys,
She, whose least word brings from the spheres their music,
At whose approach the sun rose in the evening,
Who, where she went, bare in her forehead morning,
Is gone, is gone from these our spoiled forests,
Turning to deserts our best pastured mountains.

These mountains witness shall, so shall these valleys,
These forests eke, made wretched by our music,
Our morning hymn this is, and song at evening.

So there you have them: the best sestinas ever, according to me. I'm sure every reader's choices will be different, but if you added a poem or three to yours, having read mine, hopefully you will consider your time here well spent.

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