Subject Sestina
Posted by The Duke of Earl
Posted on Sat Dec 5 13:39:10 1998
From IP  

When I first read this poem, I felt that it is filled with sadness. Because in every stanza, I can see a lot of image of tears; it seems that tears are everywhere in this poem. The tears are like the September rain outside of the house and they are something that grandmother tries to hide. The tears are like the boiling water that spills over the kettle and "dance[s] like mad on the hot black stove." The tears are also like the tea in the cup and the buttons that the child draws in the picture. When I first read this poem, it makes me feel that the grandmother is so sentimental that it seems everything can make her burst into tears. However, when I read over, I felt this poem does not only try to express the grandmother and child's sorrow but also transmit the idea of the common human experience that is filled with sadness, joy, embarrassment and some other emotions.
Sestina is a kind of poetic form that the last words of each line of the first stanza will rotate in a certain order in the following five stanzas. So the words: house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac and tears are repeated and rotated in other stanzas. With this idea, I associate that these six words are just like different experience of human life that everyone will undergo in his/her life. The different orders of words in each stanza seem to suggest that everyone has the similar experience in his or her life, but the time they gain the experience may be different (e.g. it is impossible that everyone has the same experience of biting his/her tongue at the first day of the age of nine.)
In the first stanza, we can realize the sorrow is filled with the house but it seems that it is covered by laughter and jokes. September is the season of fall and the rain in the month of September seems to make people feel more about the loneliness and desolation of that season. The "failing light" in the second line likely suggests the grandmother is old and she is with the children "beside the Little Marvel Stove." The stove here in the first stanza is the contrast to the chilly weather outside of the house. And then, the grandmother "read[s] the jokes from the almanac/and laughing to hide her tears." It is a beautiful scene but is "adulterated" with a little bit sadness because within the laughter, there are tears hidden by the grandmother. This is contradictory. I think the jokes can apparently be the jokes that are printed on the almanac. But I think it also suggests that the grandmother is reading the jokes of life which is combined with laughter, joy, sorrow or even absurdity that is printed on the almanac-her experience of life. Tears here in the last line is no more the symbol of sorrow but of the combination of her emotions of life (when people cry, they are not always sorrowful; sometimes people cry because of happiness.)
In the second stanza, the speaker brings about the closer relationship between the rain and the tears; and they "[are] both foretold by the almanac." The tears-the combination of human experience which can be sorrowful or joyful-are just like the rain foretold (reminded or recorded) by the almanac (the history of human experience) to the grandmother.
The time is not only the linear concept (e.g. time keeps going and no one can come back to the past), but also the circular concept (e.g. the four seasons in a year.) Everyone will live his experience of life sooner or later. When the grandmother says to the child, "It's time for tea now." It seems to point out that it is time for the child to experience the life. The life is just like the water dance on the stove and the roof, which is wonderful and exciting.
The grandmother hangs the almanac, and the almanac is just like a bird hovering in the sky. The almanac is like an eagle hovering in the sky and is ready to prey on the grandmother and the child. Actually this is not a horrible scene, if we look from another way. It seems that both grandmother and the child have to go through universal human experience sooner or later.
In the fifth stanza, there is a conversation between the Marvel Stove and the almanac. "It was to be" seems to suggest the grandmother's past experience and "I know what I know" seems to suggest the human experience that the child will have in the future. Again in this stanza, the speaker connects the similar human experience between the two generations. The "house" in the third line of this stanza has other meanings. House is not only the departure point but also the destination of daily lives. In addition, it suggests the beginning and the ending of the human life, and the winding pathway seems to suggest the process of human life, which is filled with ups and downs. When the child shows the picture to the grandmother, the child feels so proud. This image seems to reveal the child's future experience will blend grandmother's experience-that is, the child will gain the same human experience that the grandmother has already gone through.
The sixth stanza seems to emphasize the similar idea in the fifth stanza-the two generations share the similar human experience. In the third line we can see a strange image: "the little moons fall down like tears/from between the pages of the almanac". It can be as simple as to explain that the punch holes on the almanac falling down just like little moons, but it can also mean that the moon which is not always round is just like the life of human beings which is always filled with uncertainty. When the moons fall down into the flower bed the child has carefully placed, it is possible to interpret this image as the child's future will be similar to the grandmother-the child will go through the similar universal human experience.
"Time to plan tears, says the almanac" seemingly to reveal that it is time for the child to enjoy the experience of human life. While the grandmother sings-praise-to the stove (symbolized as her experience), "the child draws another inscrutable house." -he is leading his own life and is onset to gain his experience of life.
  In my view, Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina" is complicating. Under the surface of sorrow, it also filled with a lot of possible interpretations. And this interpretation is one of them. The poem is full of many contrastive images: the rain, the tears, the laughter, the jokes, the singing and the dancing. These elements of the poem not only increase the complexity of the poem but also show the variety of human life.

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