English Literature


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How to Cope with Tragic Loss: A Look into Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina"

Published in 1956, "Sestina" by Elizabeth Bishop is a powerful poem that explores the multitude of ways people cope with heartbreaking loss. Through the unique perspectives of a grandmother and granddaughter, Bishop delves into themes of grief, loss, family, and isolation in her reflective and poignant piece.

The Poet Behind the Words

Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 and her childhood was filled with challenges such as loss, illness, and turmoil. Her father passed away before she was even a year old, and her mother was admitted to a mental institution when she was just five. Bishop was then shuffled between various relatives and experienced deep feelings of isolation and sorrow throughout her teenage years.

Unlike many of her contemporaries who engaged in confessional poetry, Bishop maintains a certain distance between herself, the speaker, and the characters in "Sestina." While her own life experiences certainly influence the poem's themes, the speaker remains detached and objective. Instead of delving into their emotions, the speaker simply observes the events unfolding in the house.

Fun Fact: "Sestina" was first published in the New Yorker in 1956 and later appeared in Bishop's 1965 collection, "Questions of Travel."

The Structure of "Sestina"

The poem's title itself is a nod to its form. The word "Sestina" comes from the Italian word "sexto," which means sixth. The poem consists of six stanzas, each with six lines, and ends with a three-line envoi, envoy, tercet, or tornada. In total, "Sestina" is composed of 39 lines and seven stanzas.

The sestina is a fixed form of poetry in which the end words of each stanza are repeated as the first words in the next. This creates a unique sense of unity among the stanzas and allows the speaker to revisit and expand upon earlier concepts. In "Sestina," the words "house," "grandmother," "child," "stove," "almanac," and "tears" are repeated throughout the poem, adding to its overall significance.

Additionally, the sestina's structure creates a natural pathway for ideas to evolve and develop. For instance, the house initially represents the physical setting of the poem but later takes on a mystical quality through personification. In the final stanza, a drawing of a house symbolizes the child's understanding of home, showcasing the evolution of this concept throughout the poem.

While sestinas typically do not follow a rhyming pattern, the repetition of certain words creates an internal rhythm that flows throughout the poem, adding to its musicality and impact.

Analysis of Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina"

In "Sestina," the fading light serves as a backdrop for the grandmother and granddaughter as they both cope with their tears in contrasting ways. While the grandmother reads from the almanac and shares lighthearted moments with the child, the child watches the teakettle's tears dance on the stove. As the rain falls on the house, the grandmother prepares tea and tends to the stove, knowing that the iron kettle's song is as certain as the predictions in the almanac.

Through the use of the sestina structure, Bishop skillfully weaves together the themes of grief, loss, family, and emotional isolation into a powerful and thought-provoking piece. "Sestina" serves as a moving reminder of the varied ways people respond to tragedy and the profound impact it can have on relationships.

Debunking Reality Through Fantasy in "Sestina"

In "Sestina," the grandmother and granddaughter come together to have tea and read the almanac. The almanac is a publication containing useful information like weather predictions and planting dates for farmers. However, beneath their cheerful banter and laughter, there is a deep underlying sadness. Bishop masterfully contrasts the harsh reality of loss with the child's tendency to escape into a world of fantasy.

Summary of the Poem

As they sit and read the almanac, the grandmother and granddaughter share a few moments of laughter and jokes. However, the grandmother's grief remains present throughout. She tries to mask her tears by occupying herself with tea and the almanac, but her sorrow is evident. She even believes that the almanac may have predicted her grief and linked it to the current season.

Meanwhile, the granddaughter finds solace in the simple act of observing the condensation on the teapot, lost in her own world. She sketches a house and a man, but her grandmother is too preoccupied to acknowledge her creation. In the child's imagination, the almanac speaks to her as she sees moons fall into her flower garden. The contrast between the two worlds, one filled with sorrow and the other with wonder, becomes increasingly apparent as the grandmother sings and the child continues to draw enigmatic houses.

The Use of Literary Devices in Bishop's "Sestina"

In her poem "Sestina," Bishop employs several literary devices to convey the stark contrast between a peaceful setting and the inner turmoil of her characters. These include epistrophe, personification, anthropomorphism, simile, and alliteration. Along with rich imagery and personification, these techniques contribute to the juxtaposition between the child's imaginary world and the harsh reality of dealing with loss.

Epistrophe: Emphasizing Key Characters and Themes

Epistrophe, a significant element of the sestina structure, serves to highlight the most important characters and themes in the poem. It involves repeating a word or phrase at the end of multiple lines, creating a sense of cohesion between stanzas and highlighting recurring ideas. In "Sestina," the words "house," "grandmother," "child," "stove," "almanac," and "tears" are repeated at the end of each line, emphasizing their connection.

Epistrophe: the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of multiple lines.

Personification and Anthropomorphism: Giving Life to Inanimate Objects

The use of personification and anthropomorphism in the poem also plays a significant role in bringing inanimate objects to life. For instance, the condensation on the teapot is described as "tears" dancing on the stove, giving them a sense of movement and emotion. The stove and almanac also seem to communicate with each other, highlighting the isolation felt by the grandmother and granddaughter.

The use of personification also adds to the child's fantasy world, an escape from her disconnected relationship with her grandmother. As the grandmother retreats into her grief, the almanac tells the child, "It's time to plant tears." This portrays grief as something tangible, something that can be actively managed, rather than just an internal emotion. The child may be waiting for her grandmother's grief to bloom, much like planting a seed.

Personification: attributing human qualities to non-human things.

Through clever use of literary devices, Bishop crafts a striking comparison between the harshness of loss and the whimsical world of a child's imagination. "Sestina" is a thought-provoking exploration of the human experience of loss and the need to escape from reality.

Anthropomorphism in Poetry: Bringing Nonhuman Objects to Life

In poetry, anthropomorphism refers to the attribution of human qualities, emotions, and behaviors to nonhuman things. This literary device manifests in various forms, such as caesura, simile, metaphor, and alliteration. These techniques allow the poet to create a deeper meaning and connection between the nonhuman objects and the human characters within the poem. In "Sestina," we can see how these devices are used to tell a captivating story.

Caesura: Indicating a Disconnect

Caesura, a poetic device, creates a pause or break within a line of poetry. In "Sestina," line 13 reads, "It's time for tea now; but the child is watching the teakettle's small hard tears" (13-14). This caesura not only controls the rhythm but also highlights the disconnection between the child and her grandmother. While the grandmother is preoccupied with mundane tasks, the child lives in a world where even teakettles can cry. This disconnect is further emphasized through the use of caesura.

Simile: Comparing Inanimate Objects to Living Things

Similar to personification, simile also brings inanimate objects to life by comparing them to living things and actions. In "Sestina," the almanac is compared to a hovering bird in lines 19-21: "...Birdlike, the almanac hovers half open above the child, hovers above the old grandmother." This simile creates a sense of potential and serves as a reminder that though the almanac has been put away, it still holds significance in the poem.


Simile plays a crucial role in adding an element of fantasy to Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina." The line "little moons fall down like tears" (33) compares the moons to human emotions, specifically crying, showing their emotional depth and making them more relatable.


The poem "Sestina" makes use of metaphor sparingly but effectively to provide deeper insight into the grandmother's character. In line 22, she is described as having "her teacup full of dark brown tears." While this could be interpreted literally as her making tea, the metaphor implies that she uses mundane tasks to distract herself from her own pain. The dark brown tears in her teacup symbolize her true feelings of sorrow that she tries to numb with her actions.


Alliteration, the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of closely connected words, is used effectively in "Sestina." The letter "T" is repeated in lines such as "talking to hide her tears" (6) and "time for tea" (13). This not only adds to the rhythmic flow of the poem but also highlights the setting (a rainy evening in September) and the overall sense of melancholy.


The poem "Sestina" delves into the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter and how they each deal with grief. Their contrasting approaches to emotions leave them feeling disconnected and isolated, even in the comfort of their own home.


In a poem depicting a family at odds, the unspoken moments between the grandmother and granddaughter hold greater significance than the words they do exchange. This theme is established in the first stanza, where the two sit in the kitchen, their connection overshadowed by the "failing light" and the grandmother's tears. Even her laughter, as she reads from the almanac, is revealed to be a façade. Instead of genuinely interacting with her granddaughter, she hides her pain, setting the tone for the rest of the poem, where secrets and pretenses dominate their family dynamic.

Though aware of the emotional distance between them, the child attempts to bridge the gap by drawing a "rigid house" (27) with crayons, highlighting her longing for a stable and loving family environment.

In conclusion, through the use of powerful poetic devices, "Sestina" explores the theme of emotional isolation in the midst of familial relationships and the ability of poetry to bring inanimate objects to life.The child in the poem proudly shows her grandmother the house she has drawn, which symbolizes their shared grief and emotional isolation. The man with "buttons like tears" is a representation of this grief, adding depth to the poem's themes.Written in strict sestina form, the poem's seven stanzas contain repeating words that highlight and expand on its themes. This repetition creates unity and allows the poet to focus on a few important words. The use of figurative language, particularly the contrast between reality and the child's imagination, further emphasizes the theme of emotional isolation.Despite not being directly based on Bishop's own childhood, the poem still explores similar themes to her own experiences. After losing her parents, Bishop was raised by her grandparents, mirroring the situation of the child in the poem. Through her skillful use of form and themes, Bishop delivers a touching and heartfelt examination of family dynamics, loss, and grief.

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