The Sestina

The sestina usually is regarded as the most difficult fixed form of the French lyric poets of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. These poets were called troubadours.

The sestina's structure is ornate. It contains six six-line stanzas with an ending three-line envoy (extra stanza). Worse, you only get to use six words (or their homonymic counterparts) at the end of each line in a preconceived pattern. Even worse, that three-line envoy doesn't let you off the hook, either; you have to use three of your end words, one at the end of each line, and one of the three remaining end words somewhere within each line . . . according to a specific pattern.

Here's what the pattern looks like if we designate A, B, C, D, E, and F as the end words of the first stanza:

1. ABCDEF

2. FAEBDC

3. CFDABE

4. ECBFAD

5. DEACFB

6. BDFECA

7. ECA or ACE (with BDF within each line of the envoy).

Don't panic. At least not yet. It's obvious that the sestina doesn't translate well into English. (The sestina is difficult in French, too.) The intricate, interrelated form usually is too repetitious for the modern ear, especially as the sestina unravels toward the envoy and becomes increasingly forced.

These are shortcomings, perhaps, but they have solutions. Let's devise some, step by step:

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