A sestina is a unique poetic form that utilizes repetition. It has six, six-line stanzas that use a complex pattern that can be hard to utilize. 

E.g. An example of sestina in poetry can be seen with Elizabeth Bishop's 'Sestina.' as it uses a repeating pattern of end words that change from stanza to stanza.

In a sestina, the poem’s first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third, sixth and final stanza. The second line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the fourth, fifth and final stanza. And so on until you get to the sixth line, which will be repeated as the last line in all six stanzas.

These poems are usually considered to be quite challenging. They force poets to use different words and phrases for every sentence while also maintaining their pattern of repetition.


Sestina Definition

Sestinas are a verse form with six stanzas and six lines per stanza that use a complicated pattern of repetition. 

A sestina is a difficult form to master because it requires an in-depth knowledge of poetic techniques and the use of words in a way that is not commonly found in other forms. While sestinas can be hard to write, they can also be equally hard to spot when one is reading poetry. 

If a reader has never seen a sestina before, they are very unlikely to notice that anything unusual is going on with a specific piece of poetry.

The sestina is often used by poets as a way to be more creative with their writing. It challenges them to think outside the box and experiment with new words or phrases that they may not have used before.

Examples of Sestinas 

Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop

‘Sestina’ is a clever poem that uses a solemn series of images to describe a grandmother, a home, and a child. Here is the first stanza: 

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.

The end words in this stanza are very clear. They are: “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “Stove,” “almanac,” and “tears.” Take a look at the second stanza and see where Elizabeth Bishop used the same end words, conforming to the pattern of a sestina. 

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,

The first line of stanza two ends with the word “tears,” which was previously found at the end of line six in the first stanza. The poet uses the word “house” at the end of line two of the stanza, moving it down from its position in line one of the first stanza and so on, creating what readers should be able to recognize as a sestina. 

Explore more Elizabeth Bishop poems

Sestina: Altaforte by Ezra Pound 

This is another famous sestina that also demonstrates Pound’s skill with language. It was published in June 1909 and inspired by the work of Victorian poet Robert Browning. The main character of the poem is a troubadour named Bertran de Born, who lived in the 12th century. The poem is set in the troubadour’s castle. Here are a few lines: 

Damn it all!  all this our South stinks peace.

You whoreson dog, Papiols, come!  Let’s to music!

I have no life save when the swords clash.

But ah!  when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing

And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,

Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.

The repeated words in stanza one are: “peace,” “music,” “clash,” “opposing,” “crimson,” and “rejoicing.” Take a look at the second stanza in order to get a feeling for how the sestina form works in this poem: 

In hot summer have I great rejoicing

When the tempests kill the earth’s foul peace,

And the lightnings from black heav’n flash crimson,

And the fierce thunders roar me their music

And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,

And through all the riven skies God’s swords clash.

In the second stanza, readers can see “rejoicing,” “peace,” “crimson,” “music,” “opposing,” and “clash.” 

Discover more Ezra Pound poems


What kind of poem is a sestina? 

Sestinas are six-stanza poems that are made of sestets, or stanzas, composed of six lines. These poems use an intricate pattern of repeated words that can be hard to learn and even harder to spot. 

What are sestinas about? 

Sestinas do not need to conform to a specific type of subject matter in order to be qualified as this type of poem. Unlike odes, epitaphs, and litanies, there is no specific subject matter that a poet needs to engage with in order to have written the sestina. 

Why do poets write sestinas? 

Like all poems,  each poet is going to have a different reason for why they wanted to write a sestina. Because sestinas can be about any subject, most poets choose to engage in this poetic form when they want to write about a subject they think would benefit from repetition or they want an added challenge during their writing process.

Related Literary Terms 

  • Block Form: used to describe a poem that is not separated into stanzas or verse paragraphs. These poems are contained within one “block” of text. 
  • Closed Form: refers to poems that use a closed, specific structure or pattern. This includes poems written in the form of a sonnet, villanelle, haiku, limerick, and more.
  • Epitaph: a short lyric written in memory of someone who has died. Sometimes, epitaphs serve as elegies.
  • Heptastich: a stanza that contains seven lines in poetry. These lines can be written in any rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
  • Octastitch: a stanza with eight lines. These lines might be written in free verse or conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. 
  • Ottava Rima: used to describe a particular type of stanza in poetry. It uses eight iambic lines and follows a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC.

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