"Sestina" by Elizabeth Bishop
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The "Sestina" by Elizabeth Bishop
The "Sestina" by Elizabeth Bishop is titled after the verse form of the Italian origin by that name. However, the name of the poem is not only to remind us of its difficult and complex form, but also to enhance the subject of the poem- the fatal forces that navigate the character's lives. Thus, the main feature of the poetic form, the six repeating end-words, "grandmother", "child", "house", "stove", "almanac", "tears", all `work` together to underline this meaning, that the experience of the characters, as well as any other experience, "was to be."
The first end-word is "house." A house symbolizes a calm domestic life, but the rain falling on the house creates a sense of a cold atmosphere, which is strengthened by the situation of the grandmother trying to hide her tears. In the second stanza, it becomes clear that the grandmother believes all was "foretold by the almanac." The almanac represents a belief that all is determined by the stars, including the rain that falls on the house. Now the house is a part of predetermined system, and so are the grandmother and child who live in the house. By the third stanza, the speaker `joins` the grandmother's belief in the omniscient almanac by comparing the steams resulting from the heating of the water with the rain falling on the house, saying: "the teakettle's small hard tears dance like mad...the way the rain must dance on the house."
After showing how the house and the rain are a part of a determined, "foretold" system, the fourth stanza sharpens and returns the reader to his previous notion of the house symbolizing the family, as the grandmother's tears coincide with the house's "chill[iness]." In the fifth s...
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...ontrol of the tears becomes abundantly clear when the almanac decides that it's "Time to plant tears" now there is no longer any doubt regarding the course of the tears.
Just like the six end-words repeat themselves in a predetermined order, so is the world described in the poem bound to the predetermined rules of the stars represented in the almanac. And just as the poet cannot use a strict form of poetry without adhering to its predetermined laws, the poem's reality is one where all objects, animate or inanimate must adhere to the predetermined laws of the almanac. Thus Bishop uses a rigorous form that emulate a rigorous world where all, be it "equinoctial tears", rain on the roof or even a child's drawing is meant to be.
The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. Ed. M. Strand & E. Boland. New York: Norton 2001
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