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Sestet

A sestet, alongside an octave, is one of the fundamental parts of the sonnet form in poetry. Let's look at the meaning, format and a few examples of sestets to better understand this poetic form

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A sestet, alongside an octave, is one of the fundamental parts of the sonnet form in poetry. Let's look at the meaning, format and a few examples of sestets to better understand this poetic form.

Sestet meaning

The word sestet comes from the Italian word sestetto, which means 'sixth'.


A sestet is a type of stanza or poem with six lines. It also refers to the last six lines of a Petrarchan sonnet.


Petrarchan sonnet: A type of sonnet consisting of 14 lines, which are divided into an eight-lined stanza (called an octave) and a six-lined stanza (called a sestet).


While a sestet can exist as a standalone poem of six lines, it is more commonly seen as a part of a longer poem, particularly sonnets.


The second stanza of Emily Dickinson's poem 'The Soul has Bandaged moments' (1945) is an example of a sestet.

Salute her, with long fingers —

Caress her freezing hair —

Sip, Goblin, from the very lips

The Lover — hovered — o'er —

Unworthy, that a thought so mean

Accost a Theme — so — fair —

In this case, the poem follows no specific rhyme scheme or metric pattern.


Sestet poetry

While sestets do exist in many different types of poems, they are most commonly known for being a fundamental part of sonnets. Sestinas are also popular for their use of multiple sestets.

Sestet in sonnets

The first recorded use of a sestet in poetry is in the Italian sonnets written by the Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarch in the 14th century. This type of Italian sonnet was later renamed Petrarchan sonnet following the poet's famous use of the form.


A key component of the Petrarchan sonnet is that it ends with a sestet.


Sestets Petrarch Sestets Poetry StudySmarterFig. 1 - This is what Francesco Petrarch is likely to have looked like.


Structure

Much like any other sonnet, the Petrarchan sonnet has 14 lines. The first eight lines of the sonnet, also known as the octave, follow the rhyme scheme structure of ABBA ABBA. The sestet commonly follows the rhyme scheme pattern of either CDE CDE or CDC CDC.


Since all 14 lines of a Petrarchan sonnet are written in iambic pentameter, the concluding sestet also follows the same metric pattern.


'Composed upon Westminster Bridge' (1802) is William Wordsworth's take on a Petrarchan sonnet. In this case, the sestet has been written in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme of CDC CDC.

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Never did sun more beautifully steep
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
In most sonnets, the sestet is not isolated from the rest of the poem with a line break. However, they are differentiated from the octave with the shift in rhyme scheme.

Sestet in sestina

A sestina is a French verse form that is made of six sestets, that is, six stanzas of six lines each and a three-lined envoi.


There is no use of rhyme in a sestina and no requirements for a consistent metric pattern. The use of multiple sestets is one of the only defining features of the form.


Envoi: A short stanza at the end of a poem that comments on the entire body of the poem.

John Ashbery's 'Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape' (1966) is an example of a sestina. Here is the opening sestet of the poem.

The first of the undecoded messages read: "Popeye sits in thunder,
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges: a country."
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: "How pleasant
To spend one's vacation en la casa de Popeye," she scratched
Her cleft chin's solitary hair. She remembered spinach


And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.

"M'love," he intercepted, "the plains are decked out in thunder
Today, and it shall be as you wish." He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. "But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country."


Notice any pattern in the sestina written by John Ashbery? The last words of the lines in stanza one are also repeated as the last words in the lines of stanza two.


Apart from the use of sestets, another defining feature of a sestina is that all the words that end the lines in sestet one are repeated as the last words of every line in all the subsequent sestets of the poem. However, the order of the words can be interchanged to create a unique pattern of repetition. The envoi must also contain all the six last words from the first stanza.

Sestet rhyme scheme

In general, sestets do not have any specific rules for the type of rhyme scheme and metric pattern they should follow. However, when part of a Petrarchan sonnet, sestets tend to follow the specific rhyme scheme and metric pattern unique to the structure of that particular type of sonnet.


Rhyme scheme: The pattern of rhymes followed by the words at the end of each line in a poem or song.


In a Petrarchan sonnet, the concluding sestet has the rhyme scheme of either CDE CDE or CDC CDC.


In the original version of 'Sonnet 227' (1839) by Petrarch, the traditional structure of a Petrarchan sonnet is maintained with the rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA CDC DCD. However, this rhyme scheme is lost in the English translation by A.S. Kline.

Octave and sestet

A sonnet is made up of 14 lines in total. The first eight lines of a sonnet are referred to as the octave. Meanwhile, the last six lines make the sestet.


An octave usually begins with the poet pondering a question or in a moment of doubt or unrest. Just before the octave ends, there is a moment of climax. This tension is then resolved in the sestet with a shift in tone. This tone shift in the middle of a sonnet is referred to as a volta. The sestet concludes the poem by reflecting on the poet's musings mentioned in the octave.


'On the Death of Richard West' (1751) is a sonnet by Thomas Grey.

In vain to me the smiling Mornings shine,
And reddening Phœbus lifts his golden fire;
The birds in vain their amorous descant join;
Or cheerful fields resume their green attire;
These ears, alas! for other notes repine,
A different object do these eyes require;
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire.
Yet Morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men;
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;
To warm their little loves the birds complain;
I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
And weep the more because I weep in vain.

The octave in this sonnet details the pain and grief experienced by the poet following the death of Richard West. The octave ends with strong words such as 'lonely anguish' and 'expire' to show the poet's suffering. However, in the sestet, the poet uses imagery that is much more cheerful and uplifting. This shift in tone is a symbol of new beginnings and indicates the poet's hope that he will soon heal from his loss.


Sestet example

Here are a few examples of sestets in their various forms.


'Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent' (1673) by John Milton

This sonnet by John Milton clearly shows the role a sestet plays in a sonnet.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

In the octave of this sonnet, Milton details the struggles he was facing after losing his vision. He believes that being blind is hindering his ability to serve God and complete His tasks. However, there is a new voice that comes with the sestet that reassures Milton that God does not need 'man's work', and the best way to serve Him is to have faith in God and his will.


This tonal shift, or volta, is marked by the change in rhyme scheme while moving from the octave to the sestet.

'If See No End In Is' (2007) by Frank Bidart

This poem by Frank Bidart is a modern interpretation of a sestina with six sestets making the poem. Here are the first two sestets:

What none knows is when, not if.
Now that your life nears its end
when you turn back what you see
is ruin. You think, It is a prison. No,
it is a vast resonating chamber in
which each thing you say or do is

new, but the same. What none knows is
how to change. Each plateau you reach, if
single, limited, only itself, in-
cludes traces of  all the others, so that in the end
limitation frees you, there is no
end, if   you once see what is there to see.

'Come Up from the Fields Father' (1865) by Walt Whitman


This poem is a free verse poem and has multiple stanzas with an irregular number of lines. However, Whitman makes use of a sestet in the second stanza.

Lo, 'tis autumn,
Lo, where the trees, deeper green, yellower and redder,
Cool and sweeten Ohio's villages with leaves fluttering in the moderate wind,
Where apples ripe in the orchards hang and grapes on the trellis'd vines,
(Smell you the smell of the grapes on the vines?
Smell you the buckwheat where the bees were lately buzzing?)

The sestet has no specific rhyme scheme or metric pattern. This shows the flexibility of a sestet, as it can be used in any poetic form.


Sestet - Key takeaways

  • A sestet is a type of stanza or poem with six lines. It also refers to the last six lines of a Petrarchan sonnet.
  • Sestinas are also popular for their use of multiple sestets.
  • Sestets do not have any specific rules for rhyme schemes and metric patterns. However, in Petrarchan sonnets, they are written in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of either CDE CDE or CDC CDC.
  • In a sonnet, the octave presents the problem or climax, whereas the sestet resolves this tension.
  • A few examples of sestets in poems are:
    • 'Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent' (1673) by John Milton

    • 'If See No End In Is' (2007) by Frank Bidart

    • 'Come Up from the Fields Father' (1865) by Walt Whitman



References

  1. Fig. 1 - Public Domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Altichiero,_ritratto_di_Francesco_Petrarca.jpg

Frequently Asked Questions about Sestet

A sestet is a type of stanza or poem with six lines. It also refers to the last six lines of a Petrarchan sonnet. 

In a sonnet, a sestet is responsible for resolving the tensions introduced in the octave and for concluding the poem.

The second stanza of Emily Dickinson's poem 'The Soul has Bandaged moments' (1945) is an example of a sestet.

'Salute her, with long fingers —

Caress her freezing hair —

Sip, Goblin, from the very lips

The Lover — hovered — o'er —

Unworthy, that a thought so mean

Accost a Theme — so — fair —'

In this case, the poem follows no specific rhyme scheme or metric pattern. 


Sestets do not have any specific rules for the use of rhyme schemes. However, in Petrarchan sonnets, they are written with a rhyme scheme of either CDE CDE or CDC CDC. 

A sestet has six lines.

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