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What is the best response to tragic loss? In "Sestina" (1956) by Elizabeth Bishop, a grandmother and granddaughter respond to loss in drastically different ways. Although it helps them cope, their different approaches lead to emotional isolation and a disconnect between the two of them. Invoking the repetitive nature of a sestina to stress certain images and ideas, Bishop's "Sestina" examines themes like grief and loss, the home and family, and emotional isolation.
Frequently noted imagery
Little Marvel Stove
Rain beating on the roof of the house
Teakettle's small hard tears
Almanac hovering like a bird
Rigid house with winding pathway
Little moons fall down like tears
The home and family
Emotional isolation and solitude
Loss and grief
Even among family, grief and loss cause emotional isolation.
American poet and short story writer Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911. Her childhood was characterized by loss, instability, and health issues. Her father died before she turned one, her mother was institutionalized for mental illness before Bishop's fifth birthday, and young Bishop was sent to live first with one set of grandparents, then the other, and then her aunt, all before her teenage years. In short, Bishop had first hand experience with loss, death, and isolation.
In contrast to the confessional poetry of Bishop's peers, the speaker, characters, and poet are all completely separate in "Sestina." In confessional poetry, the poet is often reflected in the speaker and is able to work through intimate details of their life in the poem. Bishop's poetry, on the contrary, is objective and distant. Although the poem's themes are influenced by Bishop's personal life (i.e., the loss and isolation) and perhaps the scene itself is taken straight out of Bishop's childhood (a grandmother and granddaughter having tea), the speaker is removed from the characters. Instead of diving into their feelings, the speaker merely observes what is happening in the house.
"Sestina" was first published in the print edition of the September 15, 1956 issue of the New Yorker. It was later republished in Bishop's 1965 collection Questions of Travel.
The title of the poem also speaks to its form. The work "sestina" comes from the Italian word “sexto,” meaning sixth. The poem is broken into six stanzas that are six lines each and ends with a short, three-line stanza called an envoi, envoy, tercet, or tornada. In total, the poem is 39 lines and seven stanzas long.
Sestina is a unique, fixed form of poetry. The end word of each stanza becomes the end word of the first line in the next stanza. All of the words at the end of the lines in the first stanza repeat and cycle through the entirety of the poem. This creates a sense of unity between the stanzas and allows the speaker to repeatedly return to previous ideas and expand upon them. Here the words house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, and tears are repeated as end words throughout.
The sestina format creates a natural pathway for specific ideas to expand and evolve. Consider the house: at first, the house merely refers to the physical location that the grandmother and grandchild inhibit. As the story progresses, though, inanimate objects dance and beat on the roof, adding a mystical element to the house through personification. At the end of the poem, the drawing of a house represents the child's understanding of home. The imagery, connotations, and idea of house evolved throughout the poem.
Sestinas typically do not rhyme, but the intricate repetition of select words creates an internal rhythm.
September rain falls on the house.In the failing light, the old grandmothersits in the kitchen with the childbeside the Little Marvel Stove,reading the jokes from the almanac,laughing and talking to hide her tears. She thinks that her equinoctial tearsand the rain that beats on the roof of the house were both foretold by the almanac,but only known to a grandmother.The iron kettle sings on the stove.She cuts some bread and says to the child, It's time for tea now; but the childis watching the teakettle's small hard tearsdance like mad on the hot black stove,the way the rain must dance on the house.Tidying up, the old grandmotherhangs up the clever almanac on its string. Birdlike, the almanachovers half open above the child,hovers above the old grandmotherand her teacup full of dark brown tears.She shivers and says she thinks the housefeels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove. It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.I know what I know, says the almanac.With crayons the child draws a rigid houseand a winding pathway. Then the childputs in a man with buttons like tearsand shows it proudly to the grandmother. But secretly, while the grandmotherbusies herself about the stove,the little moons fall down like tearsfrom between the pages of the almanacinto the flower bed the childhas carefully placed in the front of the house. Time to plant tears, says the almanac.The grandmother sings to the marvelous stoveand the child draws another inscrutable house."
"Sestina" contrasts harsh reality with childhood fantasy and escapism. A grandmother and granddaughter are having tea and reading the almanac, an annual publication listing current information on things like the weather, planting dates for farmers, tide tables, and astronomical data.
As they read the almanac, they make jokes and laugh together. But the happiness of the scene is overshadowed by the grandmother's grief. She is only laughing and distracting herself to hide her tears. She thinks that her grief must have been foretold by the almanac and linked to the season.
Meanwhile, the granddaughter is fascinated by the condensation on the teapot and gets lost in her own world. She draws a house and a man and shows it to her grandmother who does not acknowledge it. The grandmother tends to the stove and the granddaughter sees moons falling from the almanac into the flower garden in her drawing. The almanac speaks to the child while the grandmother sings. The granddaughter continues drawing "inscrutable" houses.
Bishop uses many literary devices to create the juxtaposition between the outwardly peaceful scene and the emotional turmoil that the characters experience individually. The main literary devices are epistrophe, personification, anthropomorphism, simile, and alliteration. The use of strong imagery and personification also contributes to the contrast between the fantasy world that the child escapes to and the reality of living with loss.
Epistrophe is an essential part of the sestina structure, and it also serves to highlight the most important characters and ideas in the poem. Epistrophe is the repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of multiple lines. It highlights an idea by enhancing and expanding on the subject matter throughout each stanza while also creating unity between the stanzas. Epistrophe is apparent in the words house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, and tears. Every line ends with one of those six words, stressing the relationship and intersections between them.
Epistrophe: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of multiple lines
Personification gives the objects in the poem more action and agency than the human characters. While the granddaughter and grandmother struggle to connect with one another, the objects dance, talk, and sing. The contrast between the personified objects and the humans who spend most of their time in their own minds conveys how helpless the grandmother and granddaughter feel. Consider stanza three:
...the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house" (14-16).
Although tears are generally negative, dance is a positive verb full of vitality and happiness. But whether positive or negative, the personification still makes the inanimate objects seem more full of life than their human counterparts.
The teakettle, almanac, and stove interact with one another and with the grandmother and granddaughter more often than the two humans interact with each other, also showing how isolated they feel. For example, even though there is no actual dialogue between the grandmother and child, the stove and almanac talk:
It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.I know what I know, says the almanac" (25-26).
Finally, the personification of the objects creates the fantastical world that the granddaughter escapes into when she feels disconnected from her grandmother. When the grandmother retreats into her grief, the "clever" almanac tells the child it is "Time to plant tears" (18, 37). Because the grandmother isolates herself from her grandchild, the only way the child can relate to grief is through personification, making it more of an active external experience than an internal one. And, of course, planting requires burying a seed out of sight and waiting for it to grow into something beautiful or usable. The grandmother attempts to bury her grief; maybe the child is waiting for it to grow and bloom again.
Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.
Anthropomorphism: nonhuman things displaying literal human traits, emotions, and behaviors.
Caesura creates a break in the middle of line 13:
"It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears" (13-14).
In addition to controlling the rhythm by creating a stopping point, caesura also shows the disconnect between the child and the grandmother. The grandmother distracts herself by focusing on the actual things in front of her. She busies herself by adding wood to the stove, cutting bread, and laughing at the almanac. But while the grandmother preoccupies her mind with facts to avoid her grief, the child lives with her feelings. The granddaughter escapes to a fantasy world where teakettles can cry and almanacs can talk, but those places are controlled by feelings. There is a disconnect between the grandmother and granddaughter because one attempts to ignore her feelings and the other actively addresses them.
Caesura: a break/pause near the middle of a line of poetry
Though not as explicit as personification, simile also makes the inanimate objects an active force by comparing them to living things and actions. In lines 19-21, the speaker notes,
"...Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother"
Like a bird hovering above the ground, the half-open almanac is full of potential. Although the grandmother has put it away, the almanac is still a continuous force in the poem and the characters aren't really done with it.
Simile later contributes to the fantastical element of the poem when "little moons fall down like tears" (33), comparing moons to the human action of crying, making them as prolific and emotional as tears.
Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like/as.
Metaphor is only used once to describe the grandmother with "her teacup full of dark brown tears" (22). The grandmother was making tea, which is probably what the teacup is literally full of. However, the grandmother also uses actions like making tea to distract her from her own pain, so the dark brown tears are her feelings of sorrow that she drowns by busying herself with every day actions.
Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as
Alliteration creates an internal rhythm, stresses certain words over others, and makes the poem more interesting to read by repeating certain sounds. Most of the alliteration in the poem centers on the repetition of the letter "T." Consider: "talking to hide her tears" (6), "time for tea" (13), "teakettle's small hard tears" (14), and "Time to plant tears" (37). The repeated "T" sounds like the rain tapping on the roof of the house, reminding readers of the setting (a rainy evening in September) while also conveying the sense of sorrow and melancholy associated with rain.
Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words
The major themes of the poem are revealed in how the grandmother and grandchild relate to each other and the inanimate things around them. The differences in how the two handle grief leaves them feeling isolated and alone, even in the setting of their home.
In this poem about a disconnected family, the things the grandmother and child don't say to one another are even more important than the things they do say. The disconnect and dour mood of the poem is set from the first stanza:
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears" (2-6).
This is the only time in the poem when the grandmother and granddaughter are actually connecting, and even here their laughter is overshadowed by the gloominess of the "failing light" and the grandmother's tears. The grandmother's happiness (and, by association, this moment of connection with her granddaughter) is a front. Instead of genuinely interacting with the child, the grandmother hides her pain and her true feelings. From the very first stanza, false pretenses and secrets dominate this family's relationship.
The child is not oblivious to the distance between herself and her grandmother: "With crayons the child draws a rigid house" (27). Instead of being warm and inviting, the house the child draws is stiff and unfeeling, most likely reflecting her perception of her own home. The rigid house is emotionally cold, while the real house is physically cold: the grandmother "shivers and says she thinks the house / feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove" (23-24). Throughout the poem, the grandmother and child seem incredibly distant from one another due to their secrets and inability to be emotionally vulnerable to one another. The child continuously draws pictures of imaginary houses to mirror her lack of feeling at home.
The family suffers from a lack of connection, stemming from the grandmother's emotional isolation from her granddaughter. Not only does she hide her tears, she also feels as though no one else in the world would understand what she is going through, her pain "only known to a grandmother" (10). This feeling of isolation has led her to emotional solitude. Although she is physically present with her family, she is alone emotionally. Even the child feels alone, which causes her to retreat to her imaginary world. The speaker says,
But secretly, while the grandmotherbusies herself about the stove,the little moons fall down like tears" (31-33).
This is a secret that the child does not share with the grandmother; the girl's world is hers alone.
The poem is dominated by the loss that is only hinted at. Both characters feel a sense of loss, but they deal with it differently. The grandmother believes it is something that she was destined for:
She thinks that her equinoctial tearsand the rain that beats on the roof of the house were both foretold by the almanac" (7-9).
And because she thinks of grief as a fated occurrence, the grandmother attempts to run from it instead of addressing it. Readers don't even know what has caused the grandmother's tears, as she is so focused on avoiding them altogether. The only hint readers get comes from the way the child addresses loss. After drawing the house which presumably models their own,
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother" (24-26).
The man is presumably the one causing both the grandmother and the child grief. Perhaps it is the child's brother, father, or grandfather. Who he is doesn't matter as much as how his absence has brought them grief and emotional isolation.
Even among family, grief and loss causes emotional isolation.
She is hiding her tears (as well as her true feelings).
A sestina is unique because it highlights and expands on an idea by repeating specific words throughout each stanza. This creates unity between the stanzas and allows a poet to focus on a few important words.
She draws a "rigid" house with a flower garden and a winding pathway. Then she draws a man with "buttons like tears" and then another house.
Themes include the home and family, emotional isolation and solitude, and loss and grief.
What is "Sestina"?
"Sestina is a poem written by American poet Elizabeth Bishop. It was published in 1965 in her Questions of Travel collection.
Who is Elizabeth Bishop and how does "Sestina" relate to her life?
Bishop was an American writer in the 20th century. Like the child in "Sestina," Bishop was raised by her grandparents.
What is a sestina?
A sestina is a strict form of poetry. It is composed of six stanzas each with six lines and one stanza with three lines (called an envoi). Sestinas are unique because the last word of the last line in each stanza is the last word of the first line of the next stanza.
What is the setting of "Sestina"?
"Sestina" is set in a kitchen on a rainy day in September. The rain is constantly referenced in the poem as it gives the poem a sense of rhythm and movement and reflects the character's mood. The time of year is also significant to the grandmother.
What is the primary conflict in "Sestina"?
The grandmother and granddaughter are isolated from one another and trapped in their own worlds. Although they live together and appear to get along, neither is vulnerable with the other. They are both dealing with loss but neither talks about it.
How does the grandmother deal with grief?
She busies herself and tries to ignore it. Instead of allowing herself to cry or being emotionally vulnerable and connecting with her granddaughter, the grandmother preoccupies her time with chores.
How does the granddaughter deal with grief?
She colors and escapes to a fantasy world. In this fantasy world, moons fall out of the sky, the almanac talks to her, and her grandmother sings to the stove.
What six words are repeated in epistrophe?
What effect does personification have on the poem?
Personification gives life to the stove, teakettle, and almanac. This enables the girl to escape to her imaginary world. It also shows the distance between the child and her grandmother because the objects talk more than they do. And it depicts how hopeless the humans are in their grief as the inanimate objects are much more active than the humans.
What are the themes in the poem?
The home and family
Emotional isolation and solitude
Loss and grief
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