A Writer's Handbook


 Sestina: Song of the Troubadours

John Daleiden

The sestina originated in France late in the twelfth century; the Medieval French form is attributed to the troubadour poet Daniel Arnaut. The troubadours were traveling French poet-musicians, some of them noblemen or crusader-knights, who flourished from the end of the eleventh century through the thirteenth century. The word troubadour comes from the Provencal word trobar, meaning “to find,” or “to invent in verse.” The form was used by other Gallic poets and by Italians including Petrarch and Dante (who gave the form its Italian name). The word sestina means “sixth”.

The number six rules the structure of the poem. A sestina contains six six-line stanzas and a closing envoy or tercet (a three-line stanza)—39 lines in all. In English the lines are generally written in iambic pentameter. The function of rhyme is superseded by a recurrent pattern of end words—the use of identical rhyme. The six end words or teleutons used in the first stanza are used in a regular shifting order in each of the remaining stanzas. Each successive stanza takes its pattern from a reversed (bottom up) pairing of the lines of the preceding stanza (i.e. last and first, then next-to-last and second, then third-from-last and third). The following chart demonstrates the shifting pattern:

Stanza 1: 123456
Stanza 2: 615243
Stanza 3: 364125
Stanza 4: 532614
Stanza 5: 451362
Stanza 6: 246531
Envoy : 135 or 531

(other Envoy patterns have been used also)

Additionally, the envoy also requires the internal use of the three remaining words: (6) 1, (4) 3, (2) 5 or (2) 5, (4) 3, (6) 1. This complicated pattern of end line repetition has often been compared to the rolling waves of the ocean, or the motion of a windshield-wiper on a car.

Read sestinas written by two writers in the November 2006 Sketchbook:

Craig Tigerman, John Daleiden


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