A sestina (also, sextina, sestine, or sextain) is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet (called its envoy or tornada), for a total of thirty-nine lines. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time; if we number the first stanza's lines 123456, then the words ending the second stanza's lines appear in the order 615243, then 364125, then 532614, then 451362, and finally 246531. This organization is referred to as retrogradatio cruciata ("retrograde cross"). These six words then appear in the tercet as well, with the tercet's first line usually containing 6 and 2, its second 1 and 4, and its third 5 and 3 (but other versions exist, described below).
An alternative form exists using a couplet, instead of a tercet, with the word orders 123 and 456 or 135 and 246. An even rarer form exists using a haiku, instead of a tercet, in the traditional 575 structure. Yet other rare alternate forms either reverses the closing word order of the six stanzas before the tercet, yielding 123456, 246531, 451362, 532614, 364125, and 615243, or restructure the order into a different "retrograde cross" form such as 123456, 435261, 256314, 361542, 514623, 642135.
From "Two Lorries"
It’s raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.
There are tyre-marks in the yard, Agnew’s old lorry
Has all its cribs down and Agnew the coalman
With his Belfast accent’s sweet-talking my mother.
Would she ever go to a film in Magherafelt?
But it’s raining and he still has half the load
To deliver further on. This time the lode
Our coal came from was silk-black, so the ashes
Will be the silkiest white. The Magherafelt
(Via Toomebridge) bus goes by. The half-stripped lorry
With its emptied, folded coal-bags moves my mother:
The tasty ways of a leather-aproned coalman!
The sestina was invented in the late 12th century by the Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel. Elements of it were quickly imitated by other troubadours, such as Guilhem Peire Cazals de Caortz.
The oldest British example of the form is a pair of sestinas (frequently referred to as a double sestina), "Ye Goat-Herd Gods", written by Philip Sidney. Writers such as Dante, Petrarca, A. C. Swinburne, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, John Ashbery, Joan Brossa, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Muldoon and Joe Haldeman are all noted for having written sestinas of some fame.
What some consider a "double sestina" is similar in structure to a sestina, but uses a pattern of twelve repeating end-words, reordered through twelve stanzas, with a six-line envoi. Applying the retrogradatio cruciata organization to twelve line end-words to obtain a “double sestina” pattern produces 12 1 11 2 10 3 9 4 8 5 7 6 in the second stanza, 6 12 7 1 5 11 8 2 4 10 9 3 in the third, and so on. The end-word order returns to the starting sequence in the eleventh stanza; thus it does not, unlike the “single” sestina, allow for every end-word to occupy each of the stanza ends; end-words 5 and 10 fail to couple between stanzas. (Similar problems arise if the retrogradatio cruciata is applied to most other stanza lengths; but not all, eg 9, 11 and 14 lines).
It is difficult to devise a retrogradatio cruciata-type dodecazain pattern which has all the virtues of the sestina. In the “Complaint of Lisa” Swinburne employs six rhyming pairs of end-words across 12 dodecazains; reusing them, however, whenever it was convenient, and thus departing from the retrogradatio cruciata pattern. A sestina-purist approach to producing a 12 dodecazain “double sestina” might be to work within whatever is thrown up by the retrogradatio cruciata pattern. The only poem revealed by a search of the normal sources to do this is "Old Jenks" by John Usher.
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