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Analysis of 'Sestina' by Elizabeth Bishop

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop and a Summary of Poem 'Sestina'

Elizabeth Bishop's 'Sestina' captures a scene of family uncertainty and concentrates on the relationship between the old grandmother, the child and the inevitable dance of time. There is an underlying feeling of sadness. Something has happened that is fateful and mysterious.

It's September, it's raining. A grandmother and a child sit in the kitchen of their house as the light fades. This poem is a simple enough start, but as we progress, this cosy domestic scene begins to alter in shape and tone. All is not what it seems.

This poem reflects events that did actually occur in Elizabeth Bishop's life. Her father died when she was still a baby, and her mother never recovered from a nervous breakdown when the poet was 16 years old. She had to live with older relatives in the knowledge that she would never see her mother again.

An alternative title for this poem, 'Early Sorrow', was dropped by the poet.

There are various themes to be explored through this poem, including:

  • Family Relationships
  • Dysfunctional Families
  • Escapism
  • Art Therapy
  • Taboo Subjects
  • Different Ways To Look At Issues In Life

The cyclical nature of the sestina enables a repetitive sequence to gain strength and interest. Each stanza is a variation on a theme - a subtle change in form and meter combines dynamically with syntax and meaning.


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.

What Is a Sestina?

A sestina, derived from 12th century troubadour music, is a poem of 7 stanzas, 6 of which are six lines long, the 7th being a tercet, three lines long. This last stanza is known as the envoi.The end-words of the first stanza are used again in the next five stanzas, but the order is changed. All six end-words are to be used in the envoi:

1st stanza - abcdef

2nd stanza -faebdc

3rd stanza - cfdabe

4th stanza - ecbfad

5th stanza - deacfb

6th stanza - bdfeca

7th stanza - eca or ace

Analysis of 'Sestina'

The fascination of this poem lies in the fact that certain keywords and phrases are repeated in each stanza, which helps build a multi-faceted picture of this simple domestic scene.

All the action takes place in one room, the kitchen, but the form allows the reader different perspectives as the poem progresses.

The poet's choice of a sestina allows this cascading effect to take place in a logical and sequential manner. Imagery is vivid and the narrative almost childlike in places, punctuated here and there with more difficult words like equinoctial and inscrutable.

The emphasis is on the positional change of end words, just like different people in a dance, a repeated pattern of pre-determined nature.

If we take the word tears for example. In the first stanza, it's the girl who is hiding them; in the second, the tears relate to the autumn equinox; in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth stanzas, tears come from the teakettle, grandmother's teacup, a man's buttons, little moons respectively.

Finally, the tears become part of the girl's hereditary history. A subtle shift, yet the idea of sadness underpins the whole poem, and we're left with no doubt that something has happened within this family to cause these tears.

Phrases evolve and repeat: on the house, of the house, on the house, a rigid house, of the house, inscrutable house. There is a sense almost of deja vu and inevitability - this domestic scene will be played out over days, months, years, the child escaping into a fantasy world, the grandmother never revealing her secret.

Literary/Poetic Devices and Rythm

'Sestina' relies on a basic iambic tetrameter - four feet per line/eight beats per line - which carries with it plenty of enjambment, allowing flow of sense and syntax. For example:

It's time / for tea / now; but / the child

is watch / ing the / teakett / le's small / hard tears

dance like / mad on / the hot / black stove,

But note how the second line above has five feet - a pentameter - to stretch the sense and escape from the repetitive, enclosing dominant tetrameter, the way the child tries to escape the sadness.

  • There are no end rhymes, but there is alliteration in lines 20, and 23: She shivers and says she thinks the house and assonance in line 3 : sits in the kitchen with the child and both devices help enrich the plainer stretches of narrative.
  • Single iambic complete lines - 1,11,25,26,37 - September rain falls on the house - bring the reader to a significant pause whilst certain dynamic lines like line 8: and the rain that beats on the roof of the house and line 15: dance like mad on the hot black stove alter rhythm and energy. Iambs combine with anapaests to produce a textured rhythm.

When read as a whole, Sestina has interior music; it's a mix of hesitant rhythm with a tick tock trot, ebb and flow, a mix of quiet contemplation, hesitation and round.

  • Line 37 has a particular role to play: Time to plant tears, says the almanac. Here we have the almanac telling the child that astronomically now is a good time to emotionally refresh, a reference to lunar phases and the monthly cycle.

Who knows what will grow from tears nurtured in a new flower bed?

What Is the Tone?

'Sestina has mystery and magic. It's also a little dark and secretive. Imagine a scene from a fairytale. The old grandmother and child sit beside the warm stove as autumnal rain continues and light fades. There's a kettle on the boil. On the surface, all is well, the child is enjoying reading the almanac but deep inside, there is unhappiness.

Something isn't right in the family, and although the daily duties go on - making tea, cutting bread, tidying up - an underlying sense of insecurity prevails.

Why all the tears? Why the man with buttons like tears? Is this the child's absent father?

The almanac and the stove come to life as the child enters her imaginative world of drawing, and the grandmother fails to acknowledge the flower bed and the picture of the man. She prefers to carry on as if nothing has happened.


The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2016 Andrew Spacey