1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sestina

SESTINA, one of the most elaborate forms-of verse employed by the medieval poets of Provence and Italy, and retained in occasional use by the modern poets of Western Europe. The scheme on which the sestina is built was the invention of the great troubadour, Arnaut Daniel (d. 1199), who wrote many sestinas in the lingua di sí. Dante, a little later, wrote sestinas in Italian, and of these the most famous is that beginning “Al poco giorno ed al gran cerchio d' ombra.” In the De vulgari Eloquio, Dante admits that he copied the structure of his sestinas from Arnaut Daniel; “et nos eum secuti sumus,” he says, after praising the work of the Provençal poet. The sestina, in its pure medieval form, is independent of rhyme; it consists of six stanzas of six lines each of blank verse. This recurrence of the number six gives its name to the poem. The final words of the first stanza appear in inverted order in all the others, the order as laid down by the Provençals being as follows:-abcdef, faebdc, cfdabe, ecbfad, deacfb, bdfeca. To these six stanzas followed a tornada, or envoi, of three lines, in which all the six key-words were repeated in the following order:— b-e, d-c, f-a. It has been supposed that there was some symbolic mystery involved in the rigid elaboration of this form, from which no slightest divergence was permitted, but if so this cryptic meaning has been lost. Petrarch cultivated a slightly modified sestina, but after the middle ages the form fell into disuse, until it was revived and adapted to the French language by the poets of the Pléiade, in particular by, Pontus de Thyard. In the 19th century, the sestina. or sextine was assiduously cultivated by the Comte de Gramont, who, between 1830 and 1848, wrote a large number of examples, included in his Chant du passé (1854). He followed the example of, Petrarch rather than of the Provencal troubadours, by introducing two rhymes instead of the rigorous blank verse. A sestina by Gramont, beginning:-

“ L'étang qui s'éclaircit au milieu des feuillages,
La mare avec ses joncs rubanant au soleil,
Ses flotillas de fleurs, ses insectes volages
Me charment. Longuement au creux de leurs rivages
J'érre, et les yeux remplis d'un mirage vermeil,
J'écoute l'eau qui rêve en son tiéde sommeil, "

has been recommended to all who wish to “ triumph over the innumerable and terrible difficulties ” of the sestina, as a perfect model of the form in its “ precise and classic purity.” The earliest sestina in English was published in 1877 by Mr Gosse; this was composed according to the archaic form of Arnaut Daniel. Since that time it has been frequently employed by English and American writers, particularly by Swinburne, who has composed some beautiful sestinas on the rhymed French pattern; of these, that beginning “ I saw my soul at restfupon a day ” is perhaps the finest, example of this poem existing in English. Mr Swinburne is, moreover, like Petrarch, the author of an astonishing tour de force, “ The Complaint of Lisa, ” which is a double sestina of twelve verses of twelve lines each. The sestina was cultivated in Germany in the 17th century, particularly by Opitz and by Weckherlin. In the 19th century an attempt was made, not without success, to compose German sestinas in dialogue, while the double sestina itself is not unknown in German literature.