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Sextain-art - 2/21/10


"Sextain: Sestina by any other name" by Lady Ingeborg bildsbriótr Ulfsdottir.


NOTE: See also the files: medvl-poetry-lnks, poetry-msg, p-songs-msg, P-Polit-Songs-art, song-sources-msg, Bardic-Guide-art, Iambic-Pent-art, On-Mad-Songs-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Sextain: Sestina by any other name

by Lady Ingeborg bildsbriótr Ulfsdottir


            When confronted with the challenge of "anything in a woven medium" for Chieftains' Arts & Sciences contest, I immediately thought, "a sextain, perfect!"  A sextain  is poem which, instead of practicing the more familiar type of rhyming (using different words that sound similar) actually rhymes words with themselves.  Sensible enough.  But so as not to be boring, the good old medieval Provençals (meaning the people in what is now southern France-ish) decided to vary the order of the words in each stanza. Arnaut Daniel, a mid-twelfth century Provençal troubadour, wrote what we believe is the first sextain: "The Firm Will that Entered my Heart" ("Lo ferm voler qu'el cor m'intra.")  Most people, however, know the form sextain by its Italian name, sestina, since Petrarch was the one who popularized it.


            In a sextain, there are six stanzas of six lines each, with a three-line tornada at the end. Using my poem as an example, the end-word of line one (first stanza) is "face," line two is "rush," three is "strike," four is "moves," five is "glow," and six is "dance."  The sequence of end-words for the second stanza is 615243, the third stanza is 364125, the fourth is 532614, the fifth is 451362, and the sixth is 246531.  The tornada may vary.  I've numbered the end-words at their lines on the poem itself (which follows the article) to make this more clear.


            A tornada (a.k.a. envoi) is a short concluding stanza that, in Provençal poetry, is a dedication or summation.  I have used a similar pattern for my tornada as Arnaut did in his "Firm Will:" the first line contains word five (glow) and ends with word two (rush), the second line contains word four (moves) and ends with word three (strike), and the third line contains word six (dance) and ends with word one (face).


            In Arnaut's poem, the first line of each stanza has seven or eight syllables, while the rest have ten or eleven.  I have not chosen to follow this pattern, for two reasons.  First, the modern sources I've run across which actually address line length don't mention it differing[1]. Second, I don't want to add another solid anchoring point to more firmly separate stanzas because it would detract from the phantasmagoric feel that I believe to be an enormous opportunity of the form.


            I used a loose iambic pentameter for my sextain, since iambic pentameter is versatile and very common for English poetry (from the 14th century on.)


There are three different approaches to writing a sestina.  One is to write the tornada first, and pick six words out of it.  Another is to write the first stanza, and use whatever end-words it happens to have.  The last approach (the one I chose) is to pick your six words ahead of time.  While each has its adherents, I prefer the third option because of its flexibility.


            You'll want all the flexibility you can get, because, needing to end each line with the same word, a sextain tends to be introspective or stationary.  Changing scenes in this type of poetry is a bit more difficult than with many other poetic forms.  For instance, with a normal rhyme you could go from being in a "forest" in one stanza to being somewhere that looks "poorest" in the next.  In a sextain, you would still need to refer to "forest."


            This doesn't mean you're stuck however, it just means you need to get a bit creative.  If in the first stanza we stand in a  forest, you needn't have the action stay there.  Maybe a profusion of tent poles is a veritable forest. Maybe we are cooks, and forest a cake with candied fruits.  Maybe women singing reminds us of birdcalls in a forest.  The possibilities are.. well, finite, but don't let that discourage you!


            Here are some ideas on picking good words for repetition in a sextain:


            Choose words that have more than one meaning or can be used as more than one part of speech.  For instance:


                       Noun and verb.


That is, a word that, respectively, may either be a thing or be done, depending on context.  For instance, "dog" may refer to the four-legged wet-nosed animal, or you may "dog" someone's heels.  Choosing "dog" as opposed to "moth" (I can't think of how to "moth"; can you?) gives you twice the options.  I chose the repeating words in my sextain partly by the fact that they can be either noun or verb.


                       Noun and adjective.


A word that may either be a thing or describe a thing.  That orange (fruit) is orange (color).


            Choose words having more than one separate meaning.


Such as "plain", which may be a flat stretch of land, or describe something unornamented (that's the plain truth.)  Or the type of bow you tie vs. the type of bow you shoot.


                       May have a broader or allegorical meaning in addition to the literal one.

The aforementioned "forest" is one example; another is "chains."


            Since this poetry was sung, stay away from words which, though spelled the same way, are pronounced differently, as the fish "bass" and the voice-part "bass."  And if you tie a bow, be sure not to give a curtsy and bow afterwards.


            I honestly don't know whether it would have been acceptable in period to use different words which sound identical instead of a single end-word (an example being "their" and "there,") but since the trobar clus was supposed to be difficult, my suggestion would be to stick with single words.  


            I highly suggest mapping out your plan for the stanzas before writing the poem. (Recall that "prewriting" thing your schoolteachers tried to make you do?)  As I mentioned earlier, the formulaic nature of the sestina means you need to put in some work to make it good.  An undirected sextain reminds me of a cat—it wanders about for a bit, circles, then settles onto the nice pillow it found, refusing to get up.  Without planning, it's very easy for your cat to settle: you've run out of things to say.  Remember, a sextain has thirty-nine lines, nearly triple the amount of a sonnet, so you need to pace yourself, and not blurt out everything you want to say all at once.  A sestina gives plenty of space for development of your ideas, so take advantage of that!  You don't need to limit yourself to only one thought or place.


            In my sextain, I used the particular trick of choosing end-words that could apply equally to two different situations: fighting and dancing.  To use this device, simply make up a simile, and go from there.  I said, "fighting is like dancing; in talking about both I can use the words face, rush, strike, moves, glow, dance."  You might say, "cooking is like sewing; prepare, cut, baste, time, hands, pride."  Or even something as odd as, "spring is like swimming; wet, soothing, exciting, dangerous, blue-green, cold."  The silliest-sounding, most far-fetched ideas may be fun!  Nobody ever said a sextain was required to be serious.  There's even some evidence that Arnaut Daniel's sextain was itself whimsically mocking—in his poem about love he uses end-words like "room", "enters", and "soul", but also "nail", "rod", and "uncle". (I don't know about you, but for myself I find fingernails and uncles to be somewhat less than romantic.)


            Once you've got a general idea what you're going to write about, decide what you want to say about it, and space this out over the poem.  Try breaking each thought into equal length and assign to each a stanza, as this type of symmetry is emotionally satisfying.  As you get further along in writing the sextain, you may find that you begin to veer from your plan.  This is fine.  Evaluate whether the old plan or developing course is more fitting to the form, mood, and meaning of your poem, and proceed accordingly.  Play with your ideas; remember that being on the page doesn't mean it's final.


My process went something like this:


            I want to write a sextain.


            It will be a love poem to my (then) lord.


            Since he fights and dances, those will be the settings, and I'll choose end-words which will serve for both activities.  Face, rush, strike, dance, sparkle, fight?  No, sparkle is too limiting, and fight is difficult to apply to dance. Face, rush, strike, moves, glow, dance.  Yes.


            I watch him dance and fight, learn some dancing and fighting from him, and admire his dancing and fighting.


            The progression will be:

                                   1) watch-fight,           2) watch-dance,          3) learn-fight,                                                            4) learn-dance,  5)admire-fight,           6) admire-dance.


                       No, I'll start with the learning.  


            Maybe I should develop the settings in sequence rather than alternation—

                                   1) learn-fight,             2) watch-fight,           3) admire-fight,         

                                   4) learn-dance,            5)watch-dance,           6)admire-dance


                       No, I think it's the alternation that will keep the idea feeling fresh.


            But now that I've written the first several stanzas, I can tell watch and admire aren't sufficiently different to merit four full stanzas, since there's already some of admiring in the watching.  I'll combine admire-fight and admire-dance into one verse.

                                   1) learn-fight,             2) learn-dance,            3) watch-fight,                                                          4) watch-dance,  5)admire fight+dance,            6) ?


            That leaves one stanza left to close, which, come to think of it, is an excellent idea: writing should have a focus, and this poem could stand some ending rather than stopping suddenly.  And the focus of my love poem is love...                    6) fall hard


            However you arrange your thoughts, remember, stanza breaks shouldn't ever seem arbitrary, because if they serve no poetic purpose then why are they there? "Because that's how the form is supposed to go", is a wimpy answer. That may be how YOU knew there should be a stanza break, but don't tell the reader that.  Make him or her believe that the reason for the break is that the thought finished, and the next line is such a new idea that it needed to be separate.


            The same idea goes for other poetic decisions as well.  Regardless how stringent the requirements of form...  the best poetry has no part or aspect which seems artificial or arbitrary.  It should never occur to the reader or listener that there might be any reason the author picked a word other than that it was ideal for the job.  There should be a sense of "perfection-as-is;" that the poem is so excellent that were anything even slightly different—a word changed, a line altered, a rhyme added or removed—the poem would be the worse for it.


            Don't be discouraged, though, if your poem doesn't match up to the goal; I know there are bits of my sextain I'm not entirely pleased with.  Remember, this form was created to be hard to do well.  Take pride in the attempt, knowing that if you fail, you fall in glorious battle against a worthy opponent.


                       Now go forth, and play with words!




blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter


iamb              (pronounced EYE-amb): a unit made of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed  syllable.  The word 'deCLARE' is an iamb.  An iamb could also be made of two words:  'the CAT' is an iambic unit.  Sometimes there are even a couple iambs contained in one word, like with 'proPITiaATE.'


iambic pentameter: the line of poetry is made of five (penta-) iambs.


poetic form: the way a poem is arranged, including rhythm, rhyme, shape, and sound.


simile:          a comparison using 'like' or 'as.'  'Longswords are like greatswords.'  'The child was good as gold.'


stanza: what would in a song be called a verse, or a chorus: several lines in a poem arranged on top of each other with a space (or indent) before the next set of lines; a clump of lines in a poem, having another clump (often of equal length) following.


syllable: a small unit of sound that is one beat of a word.  It has one vowel sound (ah, eigh, eh, ee, ih, eye, o, oo, u), and may or may not have have consonant sounds (the noise made by non-vowels) around it.  As my elementary school teacher put it, "When you clap a word, a syllable is one clap.  Hot: hot(*clap*), angry: an(*clap*)gry(*clap*), syllable: syll(*clap*)a(*clap*)ble(*clap*).


trobar clus:  closed form; the Old Provençal type of poetic form designed to be technically

                      difficult to write.  This displayed the skill of the composing poet, and the discriminating taste of the nobility who appreciated it.




Malcavotti, Leonardo. "Closed Forms". Arnaut & Karkur's ultimate online prosody resource  (as a book, Prosody in England and Elsewhere: A Comparative Approach.) http://www.trobar.org/prosody/


Malcavotti, Leonardo. "Arnaut Daniel: Complete Works". Troubadours. http://www.trobar.org/troubadours/


article:      April, Anno Societatis XLII;       2008 Gregorian

poem:       February, A.S. XLII;                    2008 Gregorian


That joy as hers may dance upon his face

Sextain for a Fighter-Dancer, by Ingeborg


1          face                             A two-inch thrusting tip comes at my face;

2          rush                            Your great-sword ends the circles in a rush.

3          strike                          I shout, "It's good!" acknowledging the strike,

4          moves                         And slowly we replay the final moves.

5          glow                           As understanding dawns, I feel a glow.

6          dance                          Now we reset; begin again the dance.


6          dance                          You teach me now a diff'rent type of dance:

1          face                             Together double, then a turn to face,

5          glow                           A set-turn single and my bright eyes glow,

2          rush                            Though when you call, "Again!" I have to rush

4          moves                         (I'd thought that siding was the next two moves.)

3          strike                          I double, then the floor with foot I strike.


3          strike                          Shield and sword meet in a ringing strike

6          dance                          Circling round each other, fighters dance.

4          moves                         I watch your blade.  So gracefully it moves:

1          face                             Offensive blow or up to guard your face.

2          rush                            Your heater tilts, deflects opponent's rush;

5          glow                           The sunlight hits your helm, making it glow.


5          glow                           The light on polished wood lends it a glow.

3          strike                          String players raise their bows and drummers strike.

2          rush                            The music doesn't dally, starts a rush,

6          dance                          Release from stillness those who've come to dance.

1          face                             As animation quickens every face

4          moves                         I can see naught but yours, in tranquil moves.


4          moves                         But tranquil isn't quite the word for moves

5          glow                           As each of yours contains a brilliant glow:

1          face                             A joie de vivre resplendent in your face.

3          strike                          For whether in your sword arm's blinding strike

6          dance                          Or etched in every graceful step of dance,

2          rush                            Though joyous, each move stately, doesn't rush.


2          rush                            When e'r I see your form, I feel a rush;

4          moves                         Grab for my heart, but helpless as it moves.

6          dance                          While laughing mirthfully it seems to dance—

5          glow                           I know it's heading homeward, from the glow.

3          strike                          Surrendering, I wish it potent strike.

1          face                             I see you have received it, by your face.


5,2       glow, rush                  So Ingeborg sends out in glow a rush

4,3       moves, strike              of words she moves: beloved's heart to strike

6,1       dance, face                  that joy as hers may dance upon his face.


Copyright 2007 by Caitlin Johnoff, 2801 Middlebush Dr., Columbia, MO 65203. <alianoraree at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

[1]   "(the sestina) consists, in its pure medieval form, of six stanzas of blank verse"

            Definition of the Sestina, Encyclopedia Britannica

     "Lines can be of any single length."

            The Form of the Sestina, Lewis Turco, The New Book of Forms

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org