Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” is a cleverly constructed illustration of a grandmother and grandchild whose lives have been affected by tragedy and grief but who nonetheless strive to retain some light and liveliness in their lives. The poem is, as the title suggests, a sestina—an old and fixed verse form that includes six sestets (six-line stanzas) and one shorter three-line stanza called the “envoi.” What makes this form unique is the repetition of the six end-words of each line in each stanza in a specific order: ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, ECBFAD, DEACFB, and BDFECA, with the envoi featuring the remaining all six end-words within the final three lines. An effect of this poetic structure is that due to the repetition of these six words, each end-word becomes a significant subject within the poem, and we see this occurring in “Sestina” with the words “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “stove,” “almanac,” and “tears.” Beyond the conventions of the sestina form, the poem also employs literary devices such as alliteration and personification to create a lyrical, technically proficient poem that subtly invokes a sense of sorrow within the reader.
The poem begins with a description of the setting: a September evening, inside the house of an “old grandmother” and “child.” At first, the scene seems warm and homey: in the waning light of day, the pair sit together in the kitchen by a stove as they read and joke together, enjoying each other’s company. The first tonal shift in the poem, however, soon occurs, revealing that the lighthearted mood is actually an attempt to hide the grandmother’s tears. Beyond introducing this juxtaposition of apparent joy with a deeper undercurrent of sorrow, this first stanza also serves to introduce the six aforementioned subjects of the poem.
The poem continues, and it is clear that the cause of the grandmother’s sorrow is not unexpected, as she believes that her “equinoctial tears,” as well as the “rain that beats on the roof of the house,” were “foretold by the almanac” and “only known to a grandmother.” Her sadness does not come as a surprise to her. In fact, it seems to be as predictable as the changes in the weather that September brings, suggesting that this sadness is an annual event, the anniversary of an unspoken loss.
It soon becomes clear that this sadness does not belong only to the grandmother, as it seems the child in some way shares this grief. Water droplets produced by the boiling kettle are the subject of two comparisons: to “small hard tears” and to the rain falling and bouncing off the house’s roof. Here, the child’s youthful sense of wonderment comes through in the descriptions of the rain and the water from the kettle “danc[ing].” Though rain and tears are common symbols for sadness and usually indicate a melancholy tone, the action of dancing is comparatively lively and vivid, paralleling the attempts of both the child and grandmother to brighten their evening despite their internal grief and the gloomy weather.
As the grandmother busies herself in the kitchen and the child draws a picture, the poem hints at a possible cause of the permeating sadness. The child draws a “rigid” house with a “winding pathway” and adds an illustration of “a man with buttons like tears.” The house, due to its repetition as a subject, has been established within the poem as a significant object, and as a result, the addition of this man takes on a deeper meaning. The further comparison of his shirt buttons to tears, which have already been established as symbolic of the characters’ sadness, hints that this...
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man may be related to this sorrow. As the child’s parents remain notably absent from the poem, perhaps this man is in fact the child’s father and the grandmother’s son.
This interpretation is supported by evidence from Elizabeth Bishop’s own life. Bishop’s own father passed away from illness when she was an infant, and not long after, when Bishop was five, her mother was committed to an institution following a mental health crisis, after which Bishop was sent to live with her grandparents. Though it isn’t certain that the grandmother and child in the poem are meant to be Bishop and her grandmother specifically, the thematic and tonal parallels between the circumstances of the poem and Bishop’s own childhood lend some credence to this interpretation of the man in the child’s drawing.
Despite the poem’s sorrowful tone, there is ultimately a note of promise. In the sixth stanza of the poem, “little moons” fall from the almanac and land on the flower bed that the child has added to the drawing. Matter-of-factly, the almanac then says, “Time to plant tears.” Throughout the poem, the almanac has come to represent nature and reason. In the third stanza, it is described as “clever,” and in the fifth stanza, the almanac declares, “I know what I know.” Unlike the grandmother, who attempts to prevent her tears, and unlike the child, who is distracted by drawing, the almanac simply states the truth as it is: that sorrow is present, that it will pass, and that there is light to be found in hard times. The almanac has predicted the grief that comes with the season, and now it is declaring that it is time to plant these tears and turn them into something new.
In literature, plants and gardens are often used to symbolize life and new beginnings. In this instance, the moons, which fall “like tears,” are the seeds of hope planted amidst the hard times. September may bring rain, but that same rain is what allows planted seeds to bloom and flourish. There is pain and grief to be felt when one experiences a loss, but the seeds of hope and renewal may be planted nonetheless. Indeed, in the poem, life continues, despite the characters’ grief and sorrow: the grandmother “sings to the marvelous stove,” and the child draws “another inscrutable house.”
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 role comes to the fore, first through his or her perceptions and then through his or her drawing. The result is subversive, the child’s intuition undercutting the will of the woman. The locus of the struggle is revealed in adjectives: “small hard,” “mad,” “hot black,” “clever,” “Birdlike,” “rigid,” and “inscrutable.” Reading such words, one senses greater vibrancy than in the lines depicting the grandmother—the child’s developing independence, perhaps, or anger, whether it be directed at the grandmother or elsewhere, that the child’s pain spawns.
“Sestina” never states the cause of the characters’ sadness. The fact that it is a man whom the child draws “with buttons like tears” may suggest that someone—the grandfather or perhaps the child’s father—has died or left. Certainly, the grief is serious, for the final three lines indicate that the problem will persist. A study of Bishop’s life reveals her father died when she was one year old, but the absence that may have troubled her more was that of her mother, whom Bishop never saw after she was institutionalized for serious mental illness. The loss of both parents resulted in the young Bishop spending time with her grandmother in Nova Scotia as well as having to move unwillingly to Massachusetts to attend school. Bishop never outgrew the specter of her mother and the terrible feeling of not belonging.
Bishop grouped “Sestina” with several other poems about her childhood in Nova Scotia in her 1965 book Questions of Travel. Living in Brazil, she found, brought back vivid memories of life in Great Village, along the Bay of Fundy. In “Sestina,” as well as “Manners” and “First Death in Nova Scotia,” a child figures prominently, providing a persona through which the mature poet presents the past.
The latter two poems use first-person point of view, the child’s voice telling the story, but “Sestina” uses the third person. This device blends the poet’s adult perspective with the child’s. It also permits Bishop to control the emotional distance between the reader and the character. The first stanzas focus on the grandmother, but when Bishop presents the child’s perception of the teakettle in the third stanza, the language becomes more urgent. The choice of the third person may have helped Bishop treat highly charged memories, may have allowed her, in other words, to steady herself emotionally and use the characters—human and not—to reenact a persisting trauma.
The setting—both atmosphere and place—is also vital to the story. The chilly, rainy weather, as mentioned earlier, mirrors the unhappiness in the kitchen. Bishop set the poem at a turning point—a liminal moment. The season, as the month and the word “equinoctial” signal, is changing. It is likely, given the fact that Nova Scotia sits halfway between the equator and the North Pole, that “the failing light” is also seasonal. On the other hand, the kitchen, particularly the stove, permits Bishop to emphasize the grandmother’s desire for warmth and comfort. The stove, in fact, is reminiscent of fairy tales, especially those in which security and nurturing prepare for a child’s maturing.
The poetic form Bishop chose, the sestina, imparts a sense of suspension. This form, which originated in Provençal verse of the Middle Ages, requires the repetition of six words at the ends of lines. The order changes in a prescribed way through six stanzas of six lines, then the six words appear, two per line, in a three-line envoy. Using letters to represent the key words, one finds that the abcdef order of the first stanza becomes faebdc in the second, then cfdabe in the third, and so on. That these words happen to be nouns emphasizes the symbolic, or iconic, nature of the story. The envoy compresses the repetition into three lines, providing finality. This elaborate, regular remixing can have impressive emotional impact; perhaps one should say that this artistry highlights the poet’s patterns of thought.
In “Sestina,” the repetition seems obsessive, emphasizing the isolation of the scene and the way it encloses the characters. It is particularly easy to feel the repetition as the first line of a stanza ends with the last word of the previous stanza. Regardless of the number of arrangements of the final words, the sense of loss persists. The envoy makes it clear that the trauma has not been resolved.
As much as one examines devices, there remains a feature—tone—that might best be called pure Bishop style. Labels such as “bemused,” “knowing,” “detached,” “ironic,” and “whimsical” catch elements of it. The emphasis upon tears, and the artificial way they are portrayed, is one trademark, as is the precise sense of visual detail (Bishop herself sketched and did watercolors). In addition, this poem often sounds like prose: the use of dialogue, for example, and the long, careful sentence comprising the sixth stanza.
“Sestina,” in other words, is not personal confession, as the lack of personal names indicates, but representative in the way that a tale is. Along with the persona, the point of view, and the poetic form, the language creates a complex experience for the reader. One sympathizes with both the grandmother and the child, sensing sorrow, yearning, and the tensing of the child’s effort to be an individual within the sheltering, suffocating domestic scene. Yet one also hears a wariness in Bishop’s telling of their story.
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Read within the context of fairy tales, “Sestina” speaks not only of profound sorrow but also of personal growth. The grandmother may pretend to be happy in order to maintain stability and provide shelter, but the child recognizes the difficult emotions of their predicament. Moreover, the play of the child’s mind, which turns the almanac into a bird, lets the stove and the almanac speak, and draws its own version of the child’s world, provides a distinctive way of being effectual—of, as some might say, “dealing with things.” Like many a young protagonist, the child is a hero, or at least a hero-in-waiting, exerting himself or herself to transform the world. Yet, one must not entertain Romantic delusions that art might offer salvation. After all, the child’s drawing depicts a “rigid house” and tears falling into a flower bed; in its final speech, the almanac—that voice of the inevitable—interprets: “Time to plant tears.”
Going a step further, the voice of the author, with its considerable emotional distance, ensures that this story does not become maudlin. Indeed, when listened to, when one takes the author’s playfulness into account, “Sestina” is a very busy story that features not only the woman and the child but also the stove, the almanac, and the images in the drawing, defiant little antagonists or symbols of what can never be said directly.
Geography played a central role in Bishop’s life and imagination. Geography and travel stimulated her. She traveled often but made her home in Florida and Brazil long enough to absorb those settings and write of them repeatedly. She wrote both stories and poems about Nova Scotia, where she spent part of her earliest years. Throughout her work, there is the sense of the power of “the interior”—often a region, but in “Sestina” a domestic scene. Bishop could write of places as though looking from afar, like a tourist, but she rewarded—and surprised—her readers with affecting insights that the places yielded. As she writes in “The Map,” the poem that opens her first book, “Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is.”