The Sestina

The Sestina is a very old form of poetry, thought to have been invented at the end of the twelfth century in France, and taken up in England in the nineteenth century.  It is formed by six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a final three lines.  It takes the form of blank verse, and instead of rhyme the sestina uses word repetition, but in a very particular order.  The repetition is of the last word in each line of the first stanza.  The six words must    appear as the last words in each stanza, but each time in a different order.  In addition the last word of each stanza must be the last word in the first line of the following stanza. Two of the words must then appear in each line of the ending tercet.  This repetition can be shown as follows;
Stanza I        word order 1-2-3-4-5-6
Stanza II      word order 6-1-5-2-4-3
Stanza III     word order 3-6-4-1-2-5
Stanza IV     word order 5-3-2-6-1-4
Stanza V       word order 4-5-1-3-6-2
Stanza VI      word order 2-4-6-5-3-1

I have used this formula in the sestina I have written below, and list the word order against each stanza.

A sestina for Jean

The Moon quietly carves the soft Suffolk coast                             (1) 
moving each day the multi-coloured stones                                   (2)
dusting them with sand or leaving all exposed                              (3)
in the endless change known as ‘long-shore drift’                         (4)
a power known by those with their house in the sea                     (5)
robbed by a tide that rose against their their life.                         (6)

The sounds of the shore enhances your life                                    (6)
for you have staked your claim by the coast                                    (1) 
now rich with glass rubbed smooth by the sea.                              (5)
Its wet voice whispers, in wave rattled stones’                                (2)
beguiling sibilance your thoughts soon drift                                  (4)
to encompass all friends whose pain is exposed.                            (3)

The wind from the north reams all exposed                                    (3)
just as sharply mischance can bite hard into life                             (6)
for the want of a rudder a friend may drift                                       (4)
like flotsam at neap tides stands off from the coast.                       (1)
So for each wreck-risk you seek a hag-stone                                    (2)
a power torus for fortune,  pierced by the sea.                                 (5)

When calm is required you are drawn to the sea                             (5)
the beach your sanctuary where wish is exposed                             (3)
without need of a building raised in hewn stones.                          (2)
The  sand-grains blown chorus sings of brief life                             (6)
as it wafts up the beach of this east facing coast                               (1)
but unlike a weak singer –  your note doesn’t drift.                          (4)

Once I was seduced by the soft allure of drift                                    (4)
bourne away by ideas that in lands across the sea                           (5)
I would find experience unknown within our coast.                         (1)
Flattered for the chance for my skills to be exposed                         (3)
I accepted a challenge in Northern Iran, a change in life                 (6)
that weaned my false illusions as a ‘rolling stone.’                             (2)

Daily the indifferent sun roasted desert stones                                   (2)
stark turquoise skies knew no kiss of cloud’s drift                              (4)
the grey-brown dust clothed all forms of life.                                      (6)
River wadis stood ash dry, nothing moved towards the sea              (5)
in a desiccating task my frailities were exposed                                   (3)
instead of rich experience,  life began to coast.                                    (1)

Now I am anchored, a stone polished by the sea                        (2) and (5)
you have snared my aimless drift, holding me exposed            (4) and (3)
to the rich strands of life on an ever changing coast.                 (6) and (1)


  1. Pingback: Delaney Out Loud

  2. Eve

    Thank you for this simple formula and the beautiful example. I love sestina’s and needed a bit of help remembering the formula when I came upon yours. Blessed Be, Eve

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