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Sestina

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"A Sestina of Memories"

When you were nine, and I was six years old,
Do you remember how we wandered forth,
Two small explorers, through the summer fields,
With apple turnovers provisioned well,
And trampled down the farmer's mowing grass,
In haste to pluck the little red-stemmed rose?

And how the farmer in his fury rose
With hot red face, as ogres wore of old,
And eyeing angrily his battered grass,
With wingèd words he drove the culprits forth,
And swore a whipping would be theirs as well
The next time they profaned his sacred fields?

Regretfully we left those sunny fields
(For there alone it grew, our longed-for rose),
And sate us down beside a little well
That bubbled up ’midst stonework grey and old,
And watched the slow soft runlets spouting forth,
To lose themselves amidst the spongy grass.

Long time we lay upon the kindly grass,
Until the cows from out their distant fields
In solemn, slow procession issued forth.
With stiff and lagging movements then we rose,
Our little bones aweary felt, and old
(For all the ground was damp beside the well).

Long weary weeks passed by ere we were well:
Long aching weeks; by then the farmer’s grass
Had turned to hay, and our offence was old.
Again we entered those forbidden fields,
But found no more our creamy-petalled rose,
Thorns, only thorns, the straggling hedge brought forth.

Sadly we turned, and sadly trotted forth,
Our flowers were gone, and all our hopes as well;
Though some, consoling, said, “Your little rose
Will bloom again: and, not to hurt the grass,
You might go skirting round the farmer’s fields –
His hand is mortal heavy, though he’s old.”

Still to the sunlit fields Hope speeds us forth:
Prone on the grass, we dream that all is well:
And so wax old, and never grasp our rose.

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A sestina (also, sextina, sestine, or sextain) is a highly structured verse form that uses end-line repetition rather than rhyme.

FormEdit

The sestina is composed of 6 6-line stanzas or sestets , followed by a 3-line tercet (called the envoy or tornada), for a total of 39 lines. In English, it is normally written in iambic pentameter .

The same set of six words ends the six lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time; following which, all six words are again used in the tornada.

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"). The six words then appear in the tercet as well, with the tercet's first line usually containing 6 and 2, its second 1 and 4, and its third 5 and 3.

VariationsEdit

An alternative form exists using a couplet, instead of a tercet, with the word orders 123 and 456 or 135 and 246. An even rarer form exists using a haiku, instead of a tercet, in the traditional 575 structure. Yet other rare alternate forms either reverses the closing word order of the six stanzas before the tercet, yielding 123456, 246531, 451362, 532614, 364125, and 615243, or restructure the order into a different "retrograde cross" form such as 123456, 435261, 256314, 361542, 514623, 642135.

HistoryEdit

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 pair of sestinas (frequently referred to as a double sestina), "Ye Goat-Herd Gods", written by Philip Sidney. Writers such as Dante, Francesco Petrarca , A.C. Swinburne , Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, John Ashbery, Joan Brossa, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Muldoon and Joe Haldeman are all noted for having written sestinas of some fame.

Double SestinaEdit

What some consider a "double sestina" is similar in structure to a sestina, but uses a pattern of twelve repeating end-words, reordered through twelve stanzas, with a six-line envoi. Applying the retrogradatio cruciata organization to twelve line end-words to obtain a “double sestina” pattern produces 12 1 11 2 10 3 9 4 8 5 7 6 in the second stanza, 6 12 7 1 5 11 8 2 4 10 9 3 in the third, and so on. The end-word order returns to the starting sequence in the eleventh stanza; thus it does not, unlike the “single” sestina, allow for every end-word to occupy each of the stanza ends; end-words 5 and 10 fail to couple between stanzas. (Similar problems arise if the retrogradatio cruciata is applied to most other stanza lengths; but not all, e.g. 9, 11 and 14 lines).

It is difficult to devise a retrogradatio cruciata-type dodecazain pattern which has all the virtues of the sestina. In the “Complaint of Lisa” Swinburne employs six rhyming pairs of end-words across 12 dodecazains; reusing them, however, whenever it was convenient, and thus departing from the retrogradatio cruciata pattern. A sestina-purist approach to producing a 12 dodecazain “double sestina” might be to work within whatever is thrown up by the retrogradatio cruciata pattern.

ExamplesEdit

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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