The “Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop is titled after the verse form of the Italian origin by that name. However, the name of the poem is not only to remind us of its difficult and complex form, but also to enhance the subject of the poem- the fatal forces that navigate the character’s lives. Thus, the main feature of the poetic form, the six repeating end-words, “grandmother”, “child”, “house”, “stove”, “almanac”, “tears”, all `work` together to underline this meaning, that the experience of the characters, as well as any other experience, “was to be.”
The first end-word is “house.” A house symbolizes a calm domestic life, but the rain falling on the house creates a sense of a cold atmosphere, which is strengthened by the situation of the grandmother trying to hide her tears. In the second stanza, it becomes clear that the grandmother believes all was “foretold by the almanac.” The almanac represents a belief that all is determined by the stars, including the rain that falls on the house. Now the house is a part of predetermined system, and so are the grandmother and child who live in the house. By the third stanza, the speaker `joins` the grandmother’s belief in the omniscient almanac by comparing the steams resulting from the heating of the water with the rain falling on the house, saying: “the teakettle’s small hard tears dance like mad…the way the rain must dance on the house.”
After showing how the house and the rain are a part of a determined, “foretold” system, the fourth stanza sharpens and returns the reader to his previous notion of the house symbolizing the family, as the grandmother’s tears coincide with the house’s “chill[iness].” In the fifth stanza, the house is still symbolizing family and domestic atmosphere, but now it is described from child’s point of view, through his/her fillings and experiences expressed through his/her drawing. But then in the six and the last stanzas it returns to the “foretold” system and the house now straightforwardly affected by the almanac which throws down “tears from between [its] pages…into the flower bed…in the front of the house.”
The “grandmother”, the “child” and the “stove” are the following end-words in the “Sestina.” All three of them, as anything else in the poem, are controlled by the fatal power of the stars. The grandmother understands that the tragic and the painful situation that she and her grandchild in is unavoidable because “it was to be”, as even her tears were predicted by the almanac. This powerful book “Birdlike,…hover[ing] above the old grandmother …[and] above the child” emphasizes the fact that both of them are ruled by its’ prophecies. The child expresses his/her feelings through the painting of the “man with buttons like tears.” A painting that is directly linked with the almanac in the six stanza. The “stove”, in contrast to the “grandmother” and the “child”, is an object. Its function is to heat the house and perhaps comfort the family. In the first stanza the stove is presented as a “Little Marvel Stove.” Those three capitalized and stressed words break the meter which is iambic pentameter. The stress and the capitalization of the words emphasize the great power of the “Marvel Stove”, a source of heat and comfort in the poem, a meaning strengthened described by the contrast to the reducing adjective “Little.” The “stove” also serves the fatalistic meaning underlying the poem, as it turns from an inanimate source of heat to a speaker only to support the belief in the omniscient almanac, saying: “it was meant to be.”
The almanac is a book based on a theory that all is determined by the stars. In Bishop’s “Sestina” the “almanac” is believed to contain knowledge of all human events, and that is the reason the speaker refers to it as” the clever almanac.” The grandmother comforts herself with the belief that all is “foretold” in this “clever” book with its sixed prophecies. She “read[s] the jokes from the almanac” (emphasis mine) which are not actual “jokes” but rather another reference to the almanac’s important role in the grandmother’s life. Afterwards, the almanac secretly puts its’ stamp in the child’s drawing, which enables the reader to see that the child is also fulfilling what is told in the almanac.
“Tears” is the last end-word in this sestina. Tears, in Bishop’s “Sestina” particularly and in general, symbolize pain and sadness. The grandmother’s pain is expressed through her “equinoctial tears.” Those tears, she “knows”, were predicted to appear in a specific day of the year which is September 23rd (the equinox in which day and night are of equal length), which shows the accuracy of “the clever almanac” being able to foretell not only the grandmothers crying but also the exact moment of her crying. In the envoi this fatal control of the tears becomes abundantly clear when the almanac decides that it’s “Time to plant tears” now there is no longer any doubt regarding the course of the tears.
Just like the six end-words repeat themselves in a predetermined order, so is the world described in the poem bound to the predetermined rules of the stars represented in the almanac. And just as the poet cannot use a strict form of poetry without adhering to its predetermined laws, the poem’s reality is one where all objects, animate or inanimate must adhere to the predetermined laws of the almanac. Thus Bishop uses a rigorous form that emulate a rigorous world where all, be it “equinoctial tears”, rain on the roof or even a child’s drawing is meant to be.
The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. Ed. M. Strand & E. Boland. New York: Norton 2001