This week’s Passion for Poetry is all about the Sestina. The first time I ever heard of this form was during the PAD Challenge back in April and anyone who was reading my blog back then will remember how much I loved it(not!). It’s not really as bad as it looks, in fact the form is kind of growing on me. :-)
The sestina was invented by a French troubadour named Arnaut Daniel. The troubadours first appeared in southern France in the twelfth century. Their name is extracted from the verb trobar, meaning "to invent or compose verse." They were famous, celebrated, much in fashion, and eventually very influential on the European poetry of the next few centuries. They sang - their poems were always accompanied by music - for French nobles such as the Duke of Aquitaine and the Count of Poitiers, and competed with one another to produce the wittiest, most elaborate, most difficult styles.
The Sestina was one of several forms in the complex, elaborate, and difficult closed style called trobar clus (as opposed to the easier more open trobar leu). It consists of 39 lines divided into 6 sestets and one triplet, called the envoi. It is normally unrhymed - instead, the six end-words of the first stanza are picked up and reused as the end-words of the following stanzas in a specific order. In the envoi, one end-word is buried in each line, and one is at the end of each line.
Lines may be of any length, although their length is usually consistent in a single poem. The six words that end each of the lines of the first stanza are repeated in a different order at the end of lines in each of the subsequent five stanzas. The particular pattern is given below. (This kind of recurrent pattern is "lexical repetition".)
The pattern of word-repetition is as follows, where the words that end the lines of the first sestet are represented by the numbers "1 2 3 4 5 6":
1 2 3 4 5 6 - End words of lines in first sestet.
6 1 5 2 4 3 - End words of lines in second sestet.
3 6 4 1 2 5 - End words of lines in third sestet.
5 3 2 6 1 4 - End words of lines in fourth sestet.
4 5 1 3 6 2 - End words of lines in fifth sestet.
2 4 6 5 3 1 - End words of lines in sixth sestet.
2 end words - Middle and end words of lines in envoi
Possible formats for the envoi are: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6; 1-4, 2-5, 3-6; 6-2, 1-4, 5-3; and 6-5, 2-4, 3-1
It might be easier to figure out with an example. The six words I used were:
1 truth, 2 grave, 3 life, 4 night, 5 death, 6 stone.
Night Dweller’s Truth
In every breath there is a truth
that overshadows every grave,
a truth not found within a life
that shines its beacon into night,
a knowledge brought about by death
and graven into hardest stone.
A thought that’s carved in precious stone
contains what we perceive as truth,
unsuppressed by certain death,
as cold and alien as the grave,
deep and dark as empty night
just before it bursts to life.
If I’d but know how sweet is life,
not just a pathway strewn with stone,
perhaps I’d not embraced the night
that fills me with its awful truth
and takes me far beyond the grave
out of reach of even death.
And what is that which we call death?
Perhaps another way of life,
the end is more than just the grave,
a fresh turned mound that’s capped with stone.
Perhaps we’ll never know the truth
before we pass into the night.
Come and share this sweetest night
where we can stand abreast of death,
and we will seek the perfect truth
of what is that which we call life
that gathers round us like a stone
and leads us blindly to the grave.
You look at me with visage grave -
accept my words, accept the night,
accept that fate’s not carved in stone.
Turn away from Lady Death,
her promise of the after life,
and know what’s in my heart is truth.
We’ll find our truth without the grave
and make our life within the night,
then vanquish death with shattered stone.