Sestina Summary

Sestina” is a 1956 poem by American poet Elizabeth Bishop describing a scene between a grandmother and a child.

  • On a rainy September evening, a grandmother reads to a child from an almanac, laughing to hide her tears.
  • The grandmother announces that it’s teatime, but the child is preoccupied by the “tears” of the kettle.
  • The almanac is hung up by its string over the child and the grandmother, whose teacup is described as being full of tears.


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Last Updated on May 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 784


“Sestina,” written by Elizabeth Bishop and first published in The New Yorker in 1956, describes an evening scene between a grandmother and child. Written in the titular poetic form, “Sestina” illustrates the unspoken sorrows of the grandmother and child as they attempt to cope with the feeling of an indescribable loss. Bishop herself experienced a similar situation as the one outlined in the poem, as she lost her father to illness as an infant and her mother to a mental health institution not long after, leaving Bishop in the care of her grandparents for most of her childhood.


The first stanza provides a cursory glance at the scene described in “Sestina” as it unfolds. The poem begins with a description of the poem’s location in time and space: it is September, and rain falls upon the house where the grandmother and child live. The scene takes place in the evening, as evidenced by the “failing light,” and the grandmother sits with the child in the kitchen, using the light of a nearby “Little Marvel Stove” to read from an almanac. The first stanza ends with the revelation that the reason the grandmother is joking and laughing with the child is to hide the grandmother’s tears.

The second stanza provides more insight into the grandmother’s psyche. The grandmother thinks that her tears (which are described as “equinoctial”) and the rain “that beats on the roof of the house” were predicted by the almanac but are known only “to a grandmother.” Returning back to the main scene, the kettle atop the Marvel Stove boils, and the grandmother slices a loaf of bread and addresses the child.

In the third stanza, which continues directly from the last through enjambment, the grandmother informs the child that it’s teatime; however, the child’s attention is instead focused on the teakettle. The droplets of boiling water produced by the kettle are described as “small hard tears” that “dance like mad” on the hot stove. The motion of these droplets is then directly compared to the rain outside, “danc[ing] on the house.” Back inside, the grandmother busies herself by tidying the house, hanging up the “clever almanac.”

The fourth stanza again continues through the use of enjambment, informing the reader that the almanac is being hung up by its string, thus hovering in a “birdlike” manner. The almanac is poised “half open” over the child, the grandmother, and the grandmother’s teacup. The cup is described as being full of “dark brown tears,” a metaphorical description of the tea. The grandmother shivers, feeling the chill of the cold September evening and adds more wood to the stove.

In the fifth stanza, the Marvel Stove and almanac are further personified. They speak, though they do not directly address either the grandmother or the child. The stove says, “It was to be,” to which the almanac replies, “I know what I know.” The focus of the poem then returns to the child, who is using crayons to draw a picture of a “rigid” house with a “winding pathway.” To this image, the child adds a drawing of a man “with buttons like tears,” then proudly shows it for the grandmother to see.

In the sixth stanza, the grandmother continues to “[busy] herself about the stove.” Secretly, though, the “little moons” illustrated on the pages of the almanac fall “like tears” onto the child’s drawing. The moons, seemingly by their own power, fall onto the flower bed that the child has “carefully placed” at the front of the depicted house.

The seventh and final stanza of the poem is shorter than the rest, in accordance with the sestina format. In the first six stanzas, the six main subjects of the poem (the house, the grandmother, the child, the stove, the almanac, and tears) are mentioned at the end of every line in a pattern consistent with the poetic form, while in the last stanza, each line contains two end-words, such that all six are used within the final three lines. In the final stanza, the scene ends with a note of finality yet still allows the unanswered question of the poem’s circumstances to linger. With a certain decisiveness, the almanac says, “Time to plant tears,” seemingly narrating the actions of the moons and flower bed in the previous stanza. In contrast to the certainty and referential nature of the stanza’s first line, the last two lines of the poem feature the grandmother and child busying themselves and focusing their attention on their respective activities. The grandmother, still occupying herself with housework, sings to the “marvelous” stove, while the child continues doodling, drawing “another inscrutable house.”

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