Within ‘Sestina’ Bishop makes use of her eye for detail and ability to craft it engagingly, to explore themes of home and solitude. The mood is primarily solemn, but there are more light-hearted moments when she makes use of personification and anthropomorphism. Bishop’s tone is at times playful and at others direct.
The poem takes the reader through a scene that is at times sorrowful, solemn, and calm. Within the house that’s at the center of the poem, a grandmother and a child read from an almanac. They laugh, but the grandmother only does so to cover up her tears. Her sorrow is a constant source of mystery in this piece and is never explained. There are other strange elements to the poem as well. The almanac and the stove talk, moons fall from the book into a drawing, and the child makes inscrutable drawings.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Sestina’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a seven stanza poem that’s separated into uneven sets of lines. The first six stanzas, as is customary in the sestina poem form, contain six lines and are known as sestets. The seventh is a tercet, meaning it contains only three lines. It is called, when part of a sestina, an “envoi”. The poem form is known for its looping repetition and heritage dating back to the 12th century and troubadour music.
The repetition of words at the end of the lines of a sestina is of the utmost importance. The end words in the first stanza, in this case, “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “Stove,” “almanac,” and “tears” are repeated, in a different order, in the next five stanzas. They are then used at the end of, and within, the three lines that make up the envoi.
Bishop makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sestina’. These include alliteration, epistrophe, caesura, simile, and personification. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “rain” and “roof” in line two of the second stanza and “teakettle’s” and “tears” in the second line of stanza three. Epistrophe is the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. This technique is crucial in order to successfully write a sestina.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines one and two of the third stanza and five and six of the sixth stanza.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There is an example in the fourth stanza in which the almanac is described as being “like” a bird.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. This technique appears throughout the poem. For example, these lines from the third stanza: “but the child / is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears / dance like mad on the hot black stove”.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
In the first stanza of ‘Sestina,’ the speaker begins by telling the reader, very simply, that it’s September and that “rain falls on the house”. A reader should take note of the use of “the” rather than “a” in this line. She’s thinking of a specific house rather than a generalized one. The “f” sound repeats in “failing” in line two and is used to describe the darkening light. It’s the end of the day and there’s an old woman, a “grandmother” sitting in the kitchen. This scene might appear solemn if it wasn’t for the child beside her.
This a tender moment rather than a sad or lonely one. They are together “beside the Little Marvel Stove”. Just as Bishop was specific with her description of the time of year and the weather, she also gives the reader clear information in regards to the kind of stove. The two are amusing one another by reading “jokes from the almanac”.
The scene is made more complicated by the description of the grandmother’s emotions. She’s happy to be there with her grandchild, but there’s something else going on. The reading, jokes, and laughter are there to help her cover up her tears.
She thinks that her equinoctial tears
She cuts some bread and says to the child,
The second stanza picks up with the grandmother’s tears. The speaker describes her tears as “equinoctial,” or occurring near the time of the equinox. It’s not entirely clear why she’s crying but a reader can assume it has something to do with the time of the year. There is a relationship in this reference to the time of year and the position of the sun and stars to the almanac. Both are concerned with time and the progression of the year and elements.
Her connection to the time of year is emphasized in the next lines where the speaker adds that she thought both the rain and her tears were “foretold by the almanac”. The child is unaware that the grandmother is crying. They are actively engaged with the almanac.
A bit of the whimsy that appears in the later parts of the poem is introduced in the next lines. Here, the poet uses personification to describe the noise the kettle makes.
It’s time for tea now; but the child
hangs up the clever almanac
The grandmother speaks to the child in the third stanza. She tells the child that its time for tea, signalling to the reader that’s late afternoon. The first line is a great example of caesura. Despite the fact that its “time for tea” the child is concentrating on the, still personified, “teakettle’s small hard tears”. They “dance like mad on the hot black stove”. A reader should take note of the fact that “tears” appear again at this point in the poem. The kettle and the grandmother are, in a sense, crying.
The word “dance” is repeated in line four of this stanza. This develops a clear connection between the grandmother’s tears, the water on the stove, and the rain falling onto the roof. These lines are active. The speaker to constant and unstructured movement and are juxtaposed with the calm, relatively peaceful lines that came before.
In the last two lines, the reader is brought back to the almanac which the grandmother hangs up on the wall. It is also personified. Bishop used the word “clever” to describe it and presumably the contents it holds. This has to do with its ability to foretell the weather conditions over the months and as stated previously, predict the grandmother’s tears. The sixth line of this stanza is enjambed, encouraging a reader to move quickly into the fourth stanza in order to conclude the thought.
on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.
The fourth stanza picks up right where the third left off. A reader is given the final piece of information in order to complete the sentence. The almanac, when it’s not being used, is hung up on the wall with a string. It likely hangs from a hook in the wall and sits with its pages open. Bishop uses a simile to describe the appearance of the book on the wall. It is “Birdlike”. Its pages are spread like wings.
The word “hover” is repeated in the second and third lines of this stanza. It emphasizes the image of the book as a bird. It also makes the reader very aware of its presence in the room as it appears in the scene “above the child” and “above the old grandmother”. The almanac is important, in some way, to both the child and the grandmother. It’s present in the room, waiting as if something is about to happen it needs to be there for.
The grandmother is holding a “teacup full of dark brown tears” in the fourth line. This is a metaphor for tea, but it draws the reader’s attention back to the fact that this woman has been crying. The underlying reason for her tears is still a mystery.
In the next lines, the grandmother decides to add wood to the stove, worried about the temperature in the house. There is an interesting moment in this phrase where the grandmother says she “thinks” that it’s chilly in the house. A reader might question why she only “thinks” it’s chilly, or why the poet chose to use that word rather than saying it “is” chilly. Perhaps the grandmother has different motivations, other than warming up the house, to break the silence.
It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.
In the fifth stanza of ‘Sestina,’ the Bishop jumps right back into inanimate objects taking on human characteristics. The poet has pushed this so far that a new imaginary world is created and a reader may consider these examples of anthropomorphism rather than personification.
The stove and the almanac are talking while the child draws with crayons. The words of the stove and almanac are just as curious as the grandmother’s tears are. They are not explained but they also allude to a feeling of pre-destiny, or prediction. In regards to the child, who is firmly in their own world, they draw a “rigid house / and a winding pathway”.
The scene is not a cheery and the word “rigid” is unusual, creating an image of an uptight, dreary place. The first line of the poem ended with the word “house” and was in reference to the house the child and grandmother are sitting in. This might mean that the child is drawing that same house now.
Additionally, the child draws a “man with buttons like tears”. This is a strange image and one that reintroduces “tears” into the poem once more. The child shows the drawing off, proud of it. There might be a connection between the man in the drawing, his tear-shaped buttons, and the grandmother but it is not clear.
But secretly, while the grandmother
has carefully placed in the front of the house.
In the last six-line stanza of ‘Sestina,’ the speaker delves back into the world of the grandmother. While the child was drawing the grandmother was working at the stove. Bishop’s imagination takes hold of the scene once more and “little moons fall down like tears / from between the pages of the almanac”. These beautiful lines bring the fantasy world closer to the real world but there is still a lot of mystery in the lines.
The moons cascade down from the almanac, by choice, into the flowerbed in the child’s drawing. The imaginary world that Bishop has created is expanding.
Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
and the child draws another inscrutable house.
The final stanza of the sestina is known as the envoi. Here, all the end words are used again and rearranged within the sentences. The almanac speaks again. It says “Time to plant tears”. This has to be considered in reference to the newly fallen moons that have entered into the flowerbed. Plus, a reader should take the almanacs job into consideration as well. It is used to judge when the right time to plant and harvest is. The solemn mood that was created when the grandmother’s tears were first introduced into the narrative has lasted for most of the poem. But now something new is growing. From the garden the tears might be creating new life.
As if trying to obscure her own sorrow and tears the grandmother “sings to the marvellous stove”. The scene appears to be repeating itself as the child “draws another inscrutable house”. The fantastical and real have fully merged at this point. From the sweet moments of laughter and bonding at the beginning of the poem, the grandmother and the child have separated into their own worlds.