Sestinas, like so many other French forms, are all about repetition. A sestina contains a grand total of seven stanzas – the first six containing six lines each, and the final stanza (in this case called an ‘envoy’) with three. Originally, the sestina had restrictions on meter and number of syllables per line, but these rules have largely vanished – which is fine, because sestinas are difficult enough without them. The explanation is a little complicated, so bear with me.

The main idea of the sestina is that all of the first six stanzas use the same six line-ending words, arranged in a different order each time. For instance, say that the last word in the first line of the first stanza is ‘hope.’ We’ll assign ‘hope’ the number 1. Now say that the last word in the second line of the first stanza is ‘fire.’ We’ll give ‘fire’ the number 2. Continuing in this way, we can say that the first stanza’s lines end in words numbered 1 through 6. So the first stanza’s pattern is simply 1-2-3-4-5-6.

With this in mind, we proceed to the second stanza. For stanzas two through five, the order of ending words depends on the stanza before it. In each case, the order is last, first, fifth, second, fourth, third. So the second stanza’s ending word pattern is 6-1-5-2-4-3. In the same way, the third stanza refers to the second stanza to get its pattern, 3-6-4-1-2-5. Thus the overall pattern of ending words for the first six stanzas is as follows:

1-2-3-4-5-6
6-1-5-2-4-3
3-6-4-1-2-5
5-3-2-6-1-4
4-5-1-3-6-2
2-4-6-5-3-1

It’s interesting to note that if we were to repeat this pattern for a seventh stanza, we would be back to our original 1-2-3-4-5-6. However, the seventh and final stanza follows a different pattern. It has three lines. The ending word pattern for it is 5-3-1, but there is an additional restriction; the other three ending words must be used in the middle of the lines, in a specific order, as follows:

2-5
4-3
6-1

(Some versions of the sestina are less strict, demanding only that all six words appear in the envoy at some point.)

In the example that follows, the ending words have been highlighted and numbered to make this easier to understand. Note that this sestina does not follow the form shown above for the last stanza. It was written by the Italian poet Dante.

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I have come, alas, to the great circle of shadow,(1)
to the short day and to the whitening hills,(2)
when the colour is all lost from the grass,(3)
though my desire will not lose its green,(4)
so rooted is it in this hardest stone,(5)
that speaks and feels as though it were a woman.(6)

And likewise this heaven-born woman(6)
stays frozen, like the snow in shadow,(1)
and is unmoved, or moved like a stone,(5)
by the sweet season that warms all the hills,(2)
and makes them alter from pure white to green,(4)
so as to clothe them with the flowers and grass.(3)

When her head wears a crown of grass(3)
she draws the mind from any other woman,(6)
because she blends her gold hair with the green(4)
so well that Amor lingers in their shadow,(1)
he who fastens me in these low hills,(2)
more certainly than lime fastens stone.(5)

Her beauty has more virtue than rare stone.(5)
The wound she gives cannot be healed with grass,(3)
since I have travelled, through the plains and hills,(2)
to find my release from such a woman,(6)
yet from her light had never a shadow(1)
thrown on me, by hill, wall, or leaves’ green.(4)

I have seen her walk all dressed in green,(4)
so formed she would have sparked love in a stone,(5)
that love I bear for her very shadow,(1)
so that I wished her, in those fields of grass,(3)
as much in love as ever yet was woman,(6)
closed around by all the highest hills.(2)

The rivers will flow upwards to the hills(2)
before this wood, that is so soft and green,(4)
takes fire, as might ever lovely woman,(6)
for me, who would choose to sleep on stone,(5)
all my life, and go eating grass,(3)
only to gaze at where her clothes cast shadow.(1)

Whenever the hills(2) cast blackest shadow,(1)
with her sweet green,(4) the lovely woman(6)
hides it, as a man hides stone(5) in grass.(3)