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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Boland, Eavan. “An Unromantic American.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 14 (Summer, 1988): 73-92.

Fountain, Gary. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

MacMahon, Candace, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Motion, Andrew. Elizabeth Bishop. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Longwood, 1986.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Schwartz, Lloyd. That Sense of Constant Readjustment: Elizabeth Bishop “North & South.” New York: Garland, 1987.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Wylie, Diana E. Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.