Elizabeth Bishop Sestina | Summary, Analysis, Stanzas, Structure, Themes and Poetic Techniques

Elizabeth Bishop Sestina: “Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop was published in the year 1965. This poem depicts a real-life experience. After Elizabeth’s father’s death, she experienced her mother’s nervous breakdown when she was only five years old. Her poems mainly depict her experiences after she started residing with her relatives.

A “Sestina” is a fixed verse form consisting of six stanzas of six lines each. A three-line envoi normally follows it. The words present at the end of each line in the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the upcoming stanzas. It is rotated in a set pattern.

Students can also check the English Summary to revise with them during exam preparation.

The poem tells a painful story about a grandmother and a child living in loss. This poem talks about a rainy afternoon in the month of September. The setup of the poem is in the kitchen, where two actions are depicted side by side.

The first action is of the grandmother and granddaughter having tea and drawing, and the second act shows the woman trying to be cheerful to protect the child, but her tearful eyes give away the sadness that is present deep within her.

Summary of Elizabeth Bishop Sestina

It is the month of September. It is late in the afternoon, and it is raining outside. A grandmother and a granddaughter are inside the house, making snacks and some tea. To kill time while the water boils for tea, they read the almanac and joke about the content that they find in there. Even though the grandmother is laughing at the joke, there is something that is making her upset while she tries to hide her tears.

As time passes, both the grandmother and the granddaughter seem to disappear in their own private thoughts. The grandmother is busy thinking about how her sadness is connected to the time of the year while the granddaughter is busy looking at the condensation that is being formed on the teakettle.

The grandmother tidies up the room by hanging the almanac back on its string and puts more wood on the stove. On the other hand, the granddaughter draws a picture of the house and “a man with buttons like tears” that depicts her grandmother.

The poem ends in an imaginative way with the almanac dropping imaginary moons from its pages into the flowerbed of the drawing made by the granddaughter, saying, “time to plant tears”; the grandmother sings to the stove while the child continues her drawing. This time she makes another scribble of a house with her crayons.

Elizabeth Bishop Sestina Structure

“Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop is a poem consisting of six stanzas with six lines each. This is known as the sestets. The poem finishes with a three-line envoi which makes the seventh stanza and is called a tercet.

The structure of the poem is rotated in a set pattern and has a looping repetition. The words with which each line ends in the first stanza are used as line endings in the poem’s remaining stanzas.

For example, if we take the end words in the first stanza like “grandmother”, “house”, “almanac”, “tears”, these words are repeated but in different orders in the subsequent stanzas.

Elizabeth Bishop Sestina Theme of Sestina

Sestina is marked by precise descriptions of the physical world and an air of poetic serenity. But her underlying themes include struggling to find a sense of belonging and human experiences of grief and longing.

Elizabeth Bishop Sestina Poetic Techniques

Several techniques like alliteration, epistrophe, caesura, simile and personification have been used in this poem by Elizabeth Bishop. Alliteration occurs when two or more words are used in succession. Like the words “rain” and “roof”, these begin with the same letter and appear close together. It forms an example of alliteration.

Words like “teakettle” and “tears” also provide an example of the alliteration that is one of the poetic techniques used by Bishop. The method of epistrophe is used very crucially in this poem since it is a Sestina.

A simile is used in the fourth stanza, where the almanac is described as a bird. Similes are depicted by comparing two things using the words “like” or “as”. Throughout the poem, the personification technique is used to imbue a non-human object with human characteristics.

A personification is clearly depicted in this line- “but the child is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears dance like a mad on the hot black stove”. Another example of personification is present in the second stanza, which is” the iron kettle sings on the stove”.

All these techniques used in this poem make it a unique one. The poet makes full use of her eye for detail and ability to craft the poem engagingly. A playful tone is used, but the mood of the poem is primarily solemn. The light-hearted moments are used with the help of personifications and anthropomorphism.

Elizabeth Bishop Sestina Stanzas and Analysis

First stanza

September rain falls on the house.

“In the failing light, the old grandmother


reading the jokes from the almanac,

laughing and talking to hide her tears.”

The first stanza of the poem clearly depicts that it is the time of September. The readers can clearly understand that it was raining from the line, “rain falls on the house”. The stanza begins with September rains falling on the house where a grandmother and her grandchild are both in the kitchen watching the teakettle boil as they read jokes from the almanac. “failing light” indicates that it is the end of the day, and it sets a very negative tone at the very beginning of the poem.

Bishop also provides a perfect description of the stove as “Little Marvel Stove”. The grandmother seems happy to be beside her granddaughter, but she is described as “laughing and hiding her tears”.

We see that the grandmother and the child are happily joking around, but the grandmother is just pretending in reality. Reading jokes from the almanac helped the grandmother to hide her tears and sorrow.

Second stanza

“She thinks that her equinoctial tears


She cuts some bread and says to the child,”

In the second stanza of Sestina, the tears of the grandmother have been described by Bishop as “equinoctial”. This also refers to occurring during the time of the equinox. Equinoxes occur twice a year and have to do something with the earth’s tilt and its relation with the sun.

Similarly, the grandmother thinks that her crying has to do something with the time of the year. According to the grandmother, the almanac had predicted both her tears and the rain since the almanac had information about the celestial world. The line “only known to grandmothers” gives a sense of secrecy to the grandmother’s crying.

The poet uses personification to describe how the kettle makes the noise. The fact that the kettle sings makes the readers believe that the kettle is alive.

Third stanza

“It’s time for tea now; but the child


hangs up the clever almanac”

In the third stanza, the grandmother tells her granddaughter that it is tea time. From this, we get to know that it is late in the afternoon. However, the granddaughter is distracted by the condensation on the tea stove. The dripping water on the kettle is also symbolized as the grandmother’s tears, making the kettle come alive. The awkward silence in the room is filled up by the sounds around in the room.

Tea time is over, and the grandmother puts the almanac away. The poet describes the almanac as “clever”, which depicts another personification’s appearance, making the book alive, which was also a source of their jokes. The poet seemed to be very fond of personifications.

Fourth stanza

“on its string. Birdlike, the almanac


feels chilly and puts more wood in the stove.”

“on its string, Birdlike, the almanac hovers half open above the child”, this line depicts another personification where an inanimate creature is described as something alive, like the “bird”. Bishop holds a knack for bringing in life to objects which otherwise would create a standard domestic ambience.

The fact that the almanac is “half open” depicts the fact that the almanac is inviting the child to take a peek into the book and complete the unfinished jokes.

The almanac tends to “hover” over the child. It makes the readers think that the almanac is a bee or a helicopter and is up to something. It also depicts that the book holds power over both of them in many ways.

In the poem, it is written that “her teacup full of dark brown tears”, meaning that the cup is full of the sorrow of the grandmother and her tears. Both of them are sitting in the kitchen and are lost in their own private thoughts. Both of them do not have access to each other’s thoughts and feelings.

The grandmother is getting cold, and she warms herself by putting more wood into the stove. The poet makes the readers realize that the grandmother might not think the house to be chilly, but she puts wood into the stove to distract herself from her sorrows and tears. All the tears in this poem have given the readers gloomy and dark thoughts.

Fifth stanza

“It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.


and shows it proudly to the grandmother.”

The poet so depicts the poem that some object or the other present in the house are talking in each stanza. It seems that the objects know the grandmother and the granddaughter very well. “It was to be, says the Marvel Stove” this line gives the readers a feeling that something was fated to happen that was beyond human control.

Again we are back to reality, where the poem depicts that the child is having her afternoon snack and doing a little drawing. She is drawing a “rigid” house which denotes its seriousness.

There is a new character alert. “puts in a man with buttons like tears and shows it proudly to the grandmother”. The child draws a man with a coat and with tear-shaped buttons. The child shows her drawing to her grandmother, and she is proud of her granddaughter.

Previously the child was unaware of her grandmother’s tears, but now it shows up in her drawing. This proves that she must have seen the tears of her grandmother.

A clear picture of who the man was in the child’s drawing has not been provided. If the child was drawing the house where she and her grandmother resided, then the man must be connected to them. The man might be the source of her grandmother’s tears, or perhaps someone who shared her grandmother’s sadness or maybe the child’s brother or father. Perhaps the man is gone and no longer present in their lives.

There is a moment of interaction and connection between the grandmother and the granddaughter.

Sixth stanza

“But secretly, while the grandmother


has carefully placed in the front o the house.”

In the sixth stanza, the grandmother again seems to drift off in her own world, puttering around at the stove. She was trying to keep herself busy. At times, people who are sad try to forget their sadness by keeping themselves busy. “the little moons fall down like tears,” the imaginative world approaches again.

The world of reality and the world of fantasy have come so close that it is pretty tricky to tell the difference between them. “from the pages of the almanac into the flower bed of the child”. The moons are dropping from the almanac pages as tears into the flower bed that the child has carefully placed in front of the house.

The child has given her “rigid” house a flower bed, showing that she is trying to cheer up the gloomy house in her drawing.


“Time to plant tears, says the almanac.


and the child draws another inscrutable house.”

The almanac has lost all its moons to the child’s flower bed and says, “time to plant tears”. All the tears in the poem make us feel that the grandmother has lost something or misses something.

The idea of planting tears refers to new growth or the beginning of a new life. The grandmother again sings to the Marvel Stove, but this time she calls it the “marvellous stove”, which means that the grandmother and the stove have been good friends from the very beginning.

The child draws another “inscrutable” house which means that the house is difficult to understand. At the end of the poem, we see that the grandmother and the child are very separate and are in lonely places. They remain far away from each other and take comfort from the imaginative worlds by drawing and singing, trying to sneak out of reality.

Sestina assumes a wondering storybook tone. The more the fanciful details emerge, the tone intensifies. Sestina never states the actual cause of the characters’ sadness. The fact that the child draws a man “with buttons like tears” may suggest that someone, the grandfather or the child’s father, has died or left.

Similarly, if we go back to Bishop’s life, it reveals that her father died when she was a year old, but the absence that troubled the poet was more of her mother, whom Bishop never saw after being institutionalized for serious breakdown and mental illness. This poem might be a reflection of Bishop’s life, depicting her sadness and the way she missed her close ones.

What is the meaning of the poem sestina by Elizabeth Bishop?

Elizabeth Bishop’s Sestina captures a scene of family uncertainty and concentrates on the relationship between the old grandmother, the child and the inevitable dance of time. There is an underlying feeling of sadness. … This poem reflects events that did actually occur in Elizabeth Bishop’s life.

Why is the grandmother sad in the poem sestina?

Even though the grandmother is laughing, it seems she is upset about something, because she’s trying to hide her tears. At this point, both the grandmother and the grandchild seem to disappear into their own private thoughts.

What is the grandmother hiding in sestina by Elizabeth Bishop?

The grandmother is described as “laughing and talking to hide her tears” in the first stanza, but later in the poem, her teacup is “full of dark brown tears.” The lines showing her ever-present pain and inner turmoil are interwoven with the lines showing the child’s contentment as she “shows [her pictures] proudly

What is the purpose of a sestina?

Function of Sestina

Apart from drawing attention to its structure, this lexical repetition creates rhythm in the poem, brings harmony among various stanzas, enhances the subject matter, keeps the idea alive in the reader’s minds, and engages them. Hence, the basic function of sestina is to highlight an idea.

What does the stove represent in Sestina?

The stove and the almanac are talking while the child draws with crayons. The words of the stove and almanac are just as curious as the grandmother’s tears are. They are not explained but they also allude to a feeling of pre-destiny, or prediction.