EtymologyFrom sesto "sixth".
A sestina (or sestine or sextain) is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet (called its envoy or tornada), for a total of thirty-nine lines. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time; if we number the first stanza's lines 123456, then the words ending the second stanza's lines appear in the order 615243, then 364125, then 532614, then 451362, and finally 246531. This organization is referred to as retrogradatio cruciata ("retrograde cross"). These six words then appear in the tercet as well, with the tercet's first line usually containing 1 and 2, its second 3 and 4, and its third 5 and 6 (but other versions exist, described below). English sestinas are usually written in iambic pentameter or another decasyllabic meter.
The sestina was invented in the late 12th century by the Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel. Elements of it were quickly imitated by other troubadours, such as Guilhem Peire Cazals de Caortz.
The oldest British example of the form is a double sestina, "You Goat-Herd Gods", written by Philip Sidney. Writers such as Dante, A. C. Swinburne, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, John Ashbery, Joan Brossa and Elizabeth Bishop are all noted for having written sestinas of some fame.
ExampleAn example of the way in which a sestina's end-words shift:
Poets choose free verse over form one
says because they need room to
belt it out without stone-age three-
forked rules tomahawking their brains before
they get started - For example - the five
beat line has been passe since '56
when Howl blasted its organic six-
teen gun salvo to freedom without one
shot fired in reply (not counting five
or six palefaced rhymers trying to
hold the fort) - But any poetry, for-
mal or free, aims at making magic: Three
These are the first two verses of the poem "Warpath", written by Peter Meinke (first published in the Georgia Review).
How toAnother way to understand the pattern of line ending words for a stanza, given the previous stanza works like this:
If the words at the ends of the lines of the first stanza are A, B, C, D, E, and F
End the first line of the next stanza with the word from last line of the previous one, i.e. F. End the next line with the word from the first line of the previous stanza, i.e A. Next use the word from the last line not already used (E). Next use the word from the first line not already used (B). Next use the word from the last line not already used (D). Next use the word from the first line not already used (C).
This gives the final word order: F A E B D C.
Then take this stanza as the model and perform the same transformation to get the next stanza.
You can visualize this as kneading bread. Fold the letters ABCDEF in half. Take the second half, DEF, turn it over to make FED, and push it down onto the first half, ABC. When the two halves are pushed together, they make FAEBDC. Take the second half of that, BDC, turn it over to make CDB, and push it onto the first half, FAE. When you push the halves together, you get CFDABE, and so on.
In writing a sestina it is often helpful to choose end-words which can be used in more than one sense or in more than one grammatical form, e.g as both a noun and a verb.
An alternate, numerical scheme for determining the ordering of elements in a sestina proceeds as follows:
Represent the words terminating the first stanza as: 1 2 3 4 5 6
Grab the outer two elements (1 and 6 here): "1" 2 3 4 5 "6"
Group them together at the beginning, reading from right to left (i.e. add them as "6 1" and not as "1 6"):
this operation yields: "6 1" 2 3 4 5
Grab the next outermost couple (from the original set 1 2 3 4 5 6), in this case that is "2 5":
as shown here: 1 "2" 3 4 "5" 6
Place that group (ordered from right to left as "5 2") behind the reordered set as previously.
this yields: "6 1" "5 2" 3 4
Carry out this same set of operations again on the innermost couple ("3 4") of the original set:
This is highlighted as follows: 1 2 3 4 5 6
Thus, we arrive at the form of the next stanza in the sestina: "6 1" "5 2" "4 3"
The overall transformation was: 1 2 3 4 5 6 --> 6 1 5 2 4 3
Carried through, the first six stanzas of a sestina will follow this pattern:
Stanza 1: 1 2 3 4 5 6
Stanza 2: 6 1 5 2 4 3
Stanza 3: 3 6 4 1 2 5
Stanza 4: 5 3 2 6 1 4
Stanza 5: 4 5 1 3 6 2
Stanza 6: 2 4 6 5 3 1
Regarding the order of the key words in the tercet: Jorge de Sena, a Portuguese poet, indicates that the first line contains words 1 & 2, the second words 3 & 4, and the final line words 5 & 6, in that order. The sestina by Philip Sidney, cited below, uses this order. Other sources specify 1 & 4; 2 & 5; 3 & 6. Sestina writers seem to have felt freer to alter this part of the pattern than the strict rotation and interchange of the end words in the six sestets.
sestina in Catalan: Sextina
sestina in Czech: Sestina
sestina in German: Sestine
sestina in French: Sextine
sestina in Italian: Sestina
sestina in Hebrew: ססטינה
sestina in Japanese: セスティーナ
sestina in Polish: Sestyna
sestina in Russian: Секстина
sestina in Ukrainian: Секстина