The Best Sestinas of All Time, in the English Language, with examples


The HyperTexts

The Best Sestinas of All Time

Which poets wrote the best sestinas? The sestina (aka as the “sestine,” “sextine,” and “sextain”) is a verse form most commonly consisting of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern.

The oldest-known sestina is “Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra,” written around 1200 by Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour of Aquitanian origin; he refered to it as “cledisat,” meaning “interlock.” Daniel is generally considered to be the form’s inventor, although it has been suggested that he may have innovated within a preexisting form. Other early sestinas are “Eras, pus vey mon benastruc” by Guilhem Peire Cazals de Caortz and “Ben gran avoleza intra” by Bertran de Born. These early sestinas were written in Old Occitan (the first Romance language and the language of the first troubadours; it evolved from Vulgar Latin in the south of France).

The sestina crossed over into Italian with Dante and Petrarch in the 13th century; by the 15th century, it was being used in Portuguese by Luís de Camões. The sestina was re-imported into France from Italy in the 16th century. Pontus de Tyard was the first poet to attempt the form in French, and the only one known to have done so prior to the 19th century.

The first appearance of the sestina in English print is “Ye wastefull woodes,” comprising lines 151–89 of the August Æglogue in Edmund Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar, published in 1579. Although they appeared in print later, Philip Sidney’s three sestinas may have been written earlier, and are often credited as being the first in English. Another early English sestina, found toward the end of Book I of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, circa 1590, is the double sestina “Ye Goatherd Gods.” Another early sestina, “Since wailing is a bud of causeful sorrow,” is in the most common form. Like “Ye Goatherd Gods” it is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter and uses exclusively feminine