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A French Form

    This is probably the most difficult of the French forms. There are six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoi. The iambic pentameter is normally used in English, and the last word in each of the lines in the first stanza doesn't usually rhyme with another as such, but is used in the other stanzas in a specified order. This order is normally abcdef faebdc cfdabe ecbfad deacfb bdfeca. The envoi then uses all six of these last words, three of them as line endings.

It all sounds like a triumph of form over content, and very often the result is. The example below, by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is one of the better ones: I am grateful to Wendy Nottingham for drawing it to my attention and suggesting I substitute it for one of Algernon Swinburne's dire poems. A Sestina of Wendy's, Peace is also to be found below.

                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 the 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 on 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 front of the house.

                Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
                The grandmother sings to the marvellous stove
                and the child draws another inscrutable house.

A NOTE ON COPYRIGHT: This poem is still in copyright. However, I have not been able to trace the present copyright holder. If he or she objects to its appearance here, I will remove it if he or she contacts me.

This is the Sestina by Wendy Nottingham:


                She lies in the arms of Morpheus, the god
                whom Ovid mentioned as author of dreams.
                No need to wake up; she stays there at peace;
                wrapped up in the duvet so snug and warm.
                From the radio on the cupboard, a voice
                sneaks into her brain, nudging in a new day.

                The widow plans what she will do this day;
                but first she must talk and listen to God.
                Then stretching to switch off the cupboard’s voice,
                shakes her sleepy head to clear it of dreams.
                Her old slippers wait to keep her feet warm
                as she savours this new retirement peace.

                She remembers her youth. Where was the peace
                a child should expect starting a new day?
                Quickly swallowing porridge, sweet and warm;
                she must iron her school blouse; clean, thank God.
                No time to review her guilt-ridden dreams;
                'You’ll be late for school,' screams her mother’s voice.

                In memory’s distance she hears the dog’s voice
                calling for food from the back shed. No peace
                for the wicked
; it must be those bad dreams
                that slide behind her eyelids night and day.
                Does a dog go to heaven and see God?
                At least Daisy was fed well and kept warm.

                Small coal on the fire to keep the house warm.
                She can still hear her mother’s nagging voice,
                'Come on now, a clean house is loved by God.'
                So she scurries round just to keep the peace.
                Chores before school; 'twas the same every day
                No time to stand and indulge in day-dreams.

                Why does she relive her past in her dreams?
                Why was she ever trying to keep warm?
                Hurtling down the hill for the bus each day.
                Afraid of hearing the Head’s angry voice
                scolding her for being late. Now there’s peace,
                The past has passed. She mouths, 'Thank you.' to God.

                Smiling, her dreams start to fade; she is warm.
                She has heard her God with a clear, loud voice,
                Bringing peace which will last throughout the day.

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