Two sestinas

‘Sestina’ by Dante Alighieri

I have come, alas, to the great circle of shadow,
to the short day and to the whitening hills,
when the colour is all lost from the grass,
though my desire will not lose its green,
so rooted is it in this hardest stone,
that speaks and feels as though it were a woman.

And likewise this heaven-born woman
stays frozen, like the snow in shadow,
and is unmoved, or moved like a stone,
by the sweet season that warms all the hills,
and makes them alter from pure white to green,
so as to clothe them with the flowers and grass.

When her head wears a crown of grass
she draws the mind from any other woman,
because she blends her gold hair with the green
so well that Amor lingers in their shadow,
he who fastens me in these low hills,
more certainly than lime fastens stone.

Her beauty has more virtue than rare stone.
The wound she gives cannot be healed with grass,
since I have travelled, through the plains and hills,
to find my release from such a woman,
yet from her light had never a shadow
thrown on me, by hill, wall, or leaves’ green.

I have seen her walk all dressed in green,
so formed she would have sparked love in a stone,
that love I bear for her very shadow,
so that I wished her, in those fields of grass,
as much in love as ever yet was woman,
closed around by all the highest hills.

The rivers will flow upwards to the hills
before this wood, that is so soft and green,
takes fire, as might ever lovely woman,
for me, who would choose to sleep on stone,
all my life, and go eating grass,
only to gaze at where her clothes cast shadow.

Whenever the hills cast blackest shadow,
with her sweet green, the lovely woman
hides it, as a man hides stone in grass.

Sestina by Dante Alighieri

The image at the base of this post is from the Wikipedia Site discussion on the Sestina form . I am adding here a discussion on the form used by both poets in the above post . I wanted to focus on content , which is after all what poetry is about (that and adaptions/metamorphosis/shape-shifting and code !).

‘Sestina’ by Elizabeth Bishop

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop

Listen to the poem here , Sestina . Sestina  by Elizabeth Bishop is published in Questions of Travel,  which is discussed here in Modern American Poetry

The following tables are from and Wikipedia showing the Sestina  form in its essence,

 7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

3 thoughts on “Two sestinas

  1. In Bishop’s poem, I tired of the word “tears.” Dante’s poem succeeds.

    With this form, it’s awfully hard not to appear contrived and avoid self-conscious redundancy. Such an intricate, winding form that only a master poet can pull off. I’m going to search for Swinburne’s sestina as he had just such a gift.

    Would be interesting to discover why this form appealed to the imagination of the 12th c. troubadours.


  2. I toyed with the idea of using a generic Ezra Pound example, but actually I thought to bring a woman’s voice and poem into the form.

    I try to do that every week, take a look at the Saturday Woman Poet Category.

    More women should compose in poetic-form: says me who always tries to always break it, which I did spectacularly last week and will link to soon here, I took apart a poem and it’s about to be published.


  3. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem is full of movement, sharp images and vitality. Bishop uses the sestina form to weave a unifying thread of poignancy.

    I find the Dante poem loses impact in this translation. The poem works less well for me because of this.

    It’s always good to revisit poetic form.


Comments are closed.