Mechanic Monday: Sestina!

 Welcome to another Mechanic Monday!

Today, I am trying to figure out how to write a sestina. It is a very complex, old form attributed to 12th century troubador Arnaut Daniel. Troubadors were musicians who were very competitive about verse, form, wit, and complexity. They took a great deal of pleasure in out-doing each other. Courtly love was the main topic of earliest sestinas which then spread throughout Europe to inspire poets such as Dante (Dante’s Inferno).

The form itself requires 6 words be chosen that will be the end words of each line through the whole poem. There are 6 stanzas that are 6 lines long. The end word order is varied in every stanza. The last part of the sestina is called an envoi (or sometimes a Tornada). It is 3 lines in which all 6 of the end words appears.

Today’s example will be:



 Sestina: Altaforte


 by Ezra Pound


Loquitur: En Bertrans de Born.
  Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a
  stirrer-up of strife.
  Judge ye!
  Have I dug him up again?
The scene in at his castle, Altaforte.  “Papiols” is his jongleur.
“The Leopard,” the device of Richard (Cúur de Lion).


Damn it all!  all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come!  Let’s to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah!  when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.

The previous stanza sets the scene but is not relevant to the sestina lesson. The 6 words chosen are marked in red:
peace, music, clash, opposing, crimson, rejoicing


In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When the tempests kill the earth’s foul peace,
And the lightnings from black heav’n flash crimson,          (notice: the order of the end words changes in every stanza)
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven skies God’s swords clash.


Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour’s stour than a year’s peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah!  there’s no wine like the blood’s crimson!


And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears through the dark clash
And it fills all my heart with rejoicing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might ‘gainst all darkness opposing.


The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth’s won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.


Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There’s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle’s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges ‘gainst “The Leopard’s” rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry “Peace!”


And let the music of the swords make them crimson!
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!                         (Traditionally, all 6 words should be in this part. This is the envoi.
Hell blot black for always the thought “Peace!”                              However, like a typical modern poet Mr. Pound is breaking rules 🙂


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