One of the most difficult and complex of the various French forms, the sestina is a poem consisting of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy. It makes no use of the refrain. This form is usually unrhymed, the effect of rhyme being taken over by a fixed pattern of end-words which demands that these end-words in each stanza be the same, though arranged in a different sequence each time.

If we take 1-2-3-5-6 to represent the end-words of the first stanza, then the first line of the second stanza must end with 6 (the last end-word used in the preceding stanza), the second with 1, the third with 5, the fourth with 2, the fifth with 4, the sixth with 3--and so to the next stanza. The order of the first three stanzas, for instance, would be: 1-2-3-4-5-6; 6-1-5-2-4-3; 3-6-4-1-2-5. The conclusion, or envoy, of three lines must use as end-words 5-3-1, these being the final end-words, in the same sequence, of the sixth stanza. But the poet must exercise even greater ingenuity than all this, since buried in each line of the envoy must appear the other three end-words, 2-6.

Thus so highly artificial a pattern affords a form which, for most poets, can never prove anything more than a poetic exercise. Yet it has been practiced with success in English by Swinburne, Kipling, and Auden.

A note on the source.


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Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:28:29 EDT