The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “Sestina,” Elizabeth Bishop tells a painful story of a grandmother and a child living with loss. The story, set in a kitchen on a rainy late afternoon in September, features two actions: having tea and drawing. Although the woman tries to remain cheerful and thus protect the child, her tears give away her sadness. The child, meanwhile, not only observes these troubling signs but also draws a house that makes her proud. By the final nine lines of the poem, a surprising thing happens, unnoticed by the grandmother. The buttons in the drawing become “little moons” and “fall down like tears/into the flower bed the child/ has carefully placed” in the drawing. Thus, while the characters are very close to one another, there is a contrast—even an opposition—between them. The grandmother tries to make the desolate day pleasant, while the child imagines and draws a world preoccupied with tears.

Read aloud, “Sestina” assumes a wondering, storybook tone, especially as the more fanciful details emerge. The teakettle produces “tears” that “dance.” The almanac, which both provides the grandmother with jokes and reinforces her sense of doom, “hovers” in a “Birdlike” fashion. Both the almanac and the stove speak.

These details distinguish the child’s perspective from the grandmother’s. In the opening lines, the grandmother devotes considerable effort to amusing the child. However, as the poem continues, the child’s...

(The entire section is 464 words.)