“Sestina” Themes

The main themes in “Sestina” are grief and sorrow, the passage of time, and coping with tragedy.

  • Grief and sorrow: Although their source is never explicitly stated, grief and sorrow permeate the poem through motifs like tears and rain.
  • The passage of time: While it takes place during a single evening, the poem imparts a sense of the passage of time through references to the almanac and the grandmother’s age.
  • Coping with tragedy: The grandmother and child attempt to cope with an unnamed loss by avoiding their pain through engaging in everyday activities.


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Last Updated on May 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 886

Grief and Sorrow

The theme of grief and sorrow is especially pertinent throughout “Sestina,” despite the fact that the apparent cause for this grief is never directly explained or addressed. Instead, the sadness of the characters permeates the scene through motifs like tears and rain. “Tears,” in fact, are a central subject of the poem, serving as one of the end-words repeated seven times throughout the poem. Tears are obviously associated with sadness and grief, being a natural physiological response to those emotions. Thus, it is obvious that the grandmother is experiencing some form of grief, as in the first stanza she is attempting to “hide her tears.”

This physical response is not all, though. Repeatedly, other objects in the poem are compared or likened to tears: the rain beating down on the house’s rooftop, the droplets of water produced by the teakettle, the grandmother’s tea, the man’s buttons in the child’s drawing, and the little moons from the almanac. In some instances, the characters in the poem are the ones to make this connection (as the grandmother ponders her “equinoctial” tears and the child observes the teakettle), while at other times the poem’s undefined speaker is the one to draw this comparison. Despite the grandmother’s and child’s attempts to busy themselves with other activities, they cannot seem to entirely contain their sadness, and it involuntarily rises to the surface nonetheless.

The grief that both child and grandmother experience in this poem is one that is never spoken of directly but rather alluded to peripherally; indeed, grief seems to surround the poem rather than form its foundation. Through this poem, Bishop suggests that grief is not a temporary emotion but a perpetual state, one that inevitably follows the bereaved. Through the actions and lives of the characters in “Sestina,” the poem shows that grief is a reality that the bereaved must learn to live with day after day.

The Passage of Time

Though the action within the poem takes place only over the course of one evening, Bishop’s “Sestina” conveys the feeling of time passing. The opening line of the poem informs the reader that it is set in September, indicating that time—and the characters’ location in it—is important. Throughout the poem, Bishop uses specific diction to hint at an agedness of the poem’s subjects: for example, the poem twice refers to the grandmother as “old.” This is generally an arbitrary distinction, given that a grandmother would be expected to be relatively old, so the redundancy creates a sense of emphasis: something has aged her beyond the typical passage of time.

The passage of time is also evoked in the poem’s references to celestial calendars. Though the reader is not informed which almanac the characters are reading, many traditional almanacs that would have been popular at the time of Bishop’s writing (such as the Farmer’s Almanac) included charts and information about the phases of the moon. Additionally, the grandmother’s tears are referred to as “equinoctial”—meaning, happening around the time of an equinox. Both symbols—the moons and the tears—allude to not just time’s passage but specifically its cyclical nature.

Indeed, it may be that the grief that runs through the poem is occasioned by the anniversary of a loss. The way the characters react to their grief isn’t that of people who have recently undergone a great loss but rather of people who have been dealing with it for some time. Thus, the poem suggests that time does not necessarily heal all wounds. It may soften the blow or allow someone to develop mechanisms to cope, but the pain of losing...

(This entire section contains 886 words.)

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a parent or child is too monumental for time to simply remove all suffering. Even as time passes linearly, its cycles evoke again and again the original loss.

Coping with Tragedy

A theme that becomes clear through the characters’ actions is that of coping with tragedy. Throughout the poem, both the child and grandmother engage in simple, everyday activities. However, as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that the characters are not as lighthearted as they may seem. The poem’s first stanza presents the reader with a scene of the grandmother and grandchild happily joking as they read from an almanac; however, in the stanza’s final line, the reader is informed that the grandmother is doing so in an attempt to circumvent some sorrow within her that threatens to escape through the form of tears. The many activities that the characters continue to engage in eventually border on obvious distractions, efforts to fill an otherwise empty house with the hustle and bustle of life. The grandmother is constantly busy, finding more and more housework to do, and the child, having finished their first drawing, simply moves on to draw “another inscrutable house.”

Despite their refusal to acknowledge the obvious presence of their sadness, the grandmother and child inevitably find themselves surrounded by it. The grandmother considers the “equinoctial” nature of her tears, while the child stares at the kettle and ponders how the water it produces are like tears and rain. It is human nature to attempt to avoid the objects of one’s sorrow, the poem suggests, but they cannot ultimately be ignored.