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Naming a poem after the form it uses may give off the impression of a more technical exercise, rather than a poem that achieves a very moving effect. In Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina”, however, she is able to find a surprising beauty in an otherwise difficult form. Bishop utilizes the rules that are laid out by this challenging form, and manipulates the six repeating words in a way that strengthens the message that she is attempting to portray. The poem opens up to a cold September rain falling on a house.
Immediately, the reader is left with the sense of dreariness, with a feeling that this little house is surrounded by an unseen tension. The fact that Bishop refers to the building as a “house” rather than a “home” implies that this structure is acting as a structure for shelter, more than a comforting place of rest. This careful attention to vocabulary creates a sense of a cold atmosphere, which in turn is strengthened by the grandmother as she reads “jokes from the almanac, laughing and talking to hide her tears” (Bishop).
This introduced element of melancholy is not too overwhelming, however, as the reader is eased back into comfort with the presence of a small child. While the grandmother busies herself with some tea, the child playfully focuses on drawing a house. The scene has now shifted to one that the reader may find some comfort and familiarity in. However, the poem is still mixed with the previous feelings of sadness. The contrast between the worried grandmother and the carefree child questions the innocence that we experienced as children.
To us, the world may have seemed to be so simple. Without even recognizing it, however, there are always complications that cause pain behind what we can see. This clash between the unknown and seemingly ordinary in the end is what this poem is attempting to achieve. The six words that are repeated throughout the poem seem customary at the start, but by the end they hold a completely separate meaning. The repetition that is instructed by the form is partly what gives these individual words so much strength; their meaning is developed as the poem continues.
In addition to the manipulation of certain words, Bishop also introduces the concept of symbols to further strengthen her poem. Soon after the grandmother hangs the almanac up in its place, “little moons fall down like tears from between the pages of the almanac into the flower bed the child has carefully placed in the front of the house” (Bishop). The passing of the moons from the almanac into the child’s drawing is a strong symbol of change. At the beginning of the poem, Bishop described the grandmother’s tears as “equinoctial” (Bishop), introducing the moon’s role in the poem as a symbol of a cycle.
While the moons fall like tears down to the child’s drawing, we are in turn noticing the passing of one life cycle to another. While the child innocently creates this innocent drawing, the underlying realization of change unfolds. This development of the moon and tears as symbols is a strong example of the ways in which Bishop twisted the repetitive vocabulary. The elderly woman’s tears started out in a literal meaning, but by the end of the poem they had been completely shifted to symbolize a more thoughtful concept.
It seems as if Elizabeth Bishop specifically chose to name her poem “Sestina” to not only stress it’s difficult and complex form, but to also make a connection between the form and the underlying darkness in a seemingly simple life. “Sestina” successfully embodies form, while at the same time twisting the end-words into a relevant and influential force. Bishop truly created an emblematic poem, which slowly begins to uncover what’s beneath the surface to achieve her purpose to illustrate the natural cycle of life.
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