"Sestina" Elizabeth Bishop
Analysis of "Sestina" Marilee Craig
The story behind a poem is often revealed through examination of the form, use of narrator, tone, and language. The author chooses every word, punctuation, symbol etc. for a very specific reason. Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina" is a classic example of a poem made up of the sum of its parts, and through careful analysis, the reader is able to grasp a very subtle and honest understanding.
Bishop's poem, "Sestina," was written in the very traditional form, which gave the poem its title. Although American Sestinas are typically written in iambic pentameter, Bishop used the Provencal form, which does not require the use of a specific meter.
The Sestina is a very restrictive form that is notoriously difficult to write. Each end word of each line is as specific as a puzzle piece. Bishop's characterization of the grandmother as a somewhat traditional woman who seems to repress her feelings, makes the restrictive form a clever choice.
Bishop chose 3rd person narrative to write her poem "Sestina." Because the speaker was given the ability to express the feelings and thoughts of both characters, the poem had a very unbiased and honest quality about it. Although many have suggested that the child in the poem is Bishop herself, the use of third person did allow her some distance from the sentiments.
The poem is not written in the narrative form. The action taking place in the poem is fairly limited: reading, making tea, and drawing. In fact, the undynamic characters suggest something about the tone of the piece.
"Sestina," is the story of a grandmother and her grandchild. Although the grandmother clearly loves and cares for her grandchild, the overall tone of the piece is melancholy. Rain is typically used to darken the tone of a piece and in "Sestina" is introduced in the first line.
The language used within the poem further establishes its meaning. The word "tears," which is used as one of the end words and, therefore, is repeated in each stanza was purposefully chosen by Bishop. She was obviously trying to tell the reader something of the sadness of the characters. But other less obvious word choices hint at this idea as well such as: beats, hard, mad, dark, shivers, chilly.
The reader could draw the conclusion that perhaps the child is sadened by the fact that the grandmother seems to have lost her voice within her domestic lifestyle. The grandmother appears to, sort of, fill the hours with chores, duties, and the rearing of the child. The grandmother seems to ignored or internalize her sadness. The child, however, seems to be more expressive about the unspoken melancholy within the house drawing "buttons like tears." The stove, a symbol of warmth, suggests that there is love at the heart of the sadness, but the sadness seems to take the more dominant role within the poem. However, the actual source of the sadness of the charcters is never actually stated within the piece.
Although "Sestina" is not a very dynamic piece, Bishop's clever crafting helped to reveal its subtle and honest tone. It speaks of two very real characters and gives the reader a bittersweet peak into their lives.
Orgins and Definition Marilee Craig
The Sestina dates back to the 12th Century. It is a traditional form poem created by a French Troubador by the name of Arnaut Daniel. The Troubadors always recited their poems to music. They competed against one another, and the Sestina was considered one of the most difficult poems, and the sign of a true master.
American Sestinas are typically written in Iambic Pentameter, but traditionally there was not a set meter for the poem. It consists of six stanzas of blank verse, each of six lines. The final words of the first stanza appear as the same end words in varied order in the other five, the order is very specific: abcdef, faebdc, cfdabe, ecbfad, deacfb, bdfeca. Following these was a stanza of three lines, an envoi, in which the six key words were repeated in the middle and at the end of the lines, summarizing the poem or dedicating it to some person.