How to Write a Sestina

On this page, you'll learn how to write a sestina. Click here to use our sestina-planning tool. For more writing tips and ideas, be sure to join our free email group.

Sestinas are poems in which six words keep coming back at the ends of the lines in a specific pattern.  These repeated words work like a kind of rhyme. 

Sestinas are challenging to write, like putting together puzzles, and the results can be quite beautiful, dreamlike and haunting.

I love this sestina by Elizabeth Bishop.

Example of a sestina

Here's an example of a sestina by Rudyard Kipling.

Sestina of the Tramp-Royal
by Rudyard Kipling

Speakin' in general, I'ave tried 'em all
The 'appy roads that take you o'er the world.
Speakin' in general, I'ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get 'ence, the same as I'ave done,
An' go observin' matters till they die.

What do it matter where or 'ow we die,
So long as we've our 'ealth to watch it all,
The different ways that different things are done,
An' men an' women lovin' in this world;
Takin' our chances as they come along,
An' when they ain't, pretendin' they are good?

In cash or credit, no, it aren't no good;
You've to 'ave the 'abit or you'd die,
Unless you lived your life but one day long,
Nor didn't prophesy nor fret at all,
But drew your tucker some'ow from the world,
An' never bothered what you might ha' done.

But, Gawd, what things are they I'aven't done?
I've turned my 'and to most, an' turned it good,
In various situations round the world
For 'im that doth not work must surely die;
But that's no reason man should labour all
'Is life on one same shift, life's none so long.

Therefore, from job to job I've moved along.
Pay couldn't 'old me when my time was done,
For something in my 'ead upset it all,
Till I'ad dropped whatever 'twas for good,
An', out at sea, be'eld the dock-lights die,
An' met my mate, the wind that tramps the world!

It's like a book, I think, this bloomin, world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you're readi'n' done,
An' turn another, likely not so good;
But what you're after is to turn'em all.

Gawd bless this world! Whatever she'oth done,
Excep' When awful long, I've found it good.
So write, before I die, "'E liked it all!"

Sestina structure

The six words repeated in Kipling's sestina are all, world, good, long, done, and die.  They are the last words of the first six lines of the poem, and they are repeated later in a specific pattern which I'll outline below.  

A sestina consists of six groups of six lines each, and then a group of three lines at the end of the poem.  Each group of lines is called a stanza (like a paragraph of poetry). 

To help us talk about sestinas, we'll give the repeated words names.  We'll use the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, to represent the end-words in the first six lines of the poem, in order.

  • A = the end-word of line 1
  • B = the end-word of line 2
  • C = the end-word of line 3
  • D = the end-word of line 4
  • E = the end-word of line 5
  • F = the end-word of line 6

In Kipling's sestina:

  • A = all
  • B = world
  • C = good
  • D = long (Kipling sometimes replaces it with along)
  • E = done
  • F = die

Stanza 1:

  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D
  • E
  • F

Stanza 2:

  • F (this line has the same end-word as line 6)
  • A
  • E
  • B
  • D
  • C

Stanza 3:

  • C (this line has the same end-word as lines 3 and 12)
  • F
  • D
  • A
  • B
  • E

Stanza 4:

  • E
  • C
  • B
  • F
  • A
  • D

Stanza 5:

  • D
  • E
  • A
  • C
  • F
  • B

Stanza 6:

  • B
  • D
  • F
  • E
  • C
  • A

Stanza 7 (called the "envoi"):

  • BE (E is the end-word, and B goes somewhere in the middle)
  • DC (C is the end-word, and D goes somewhere in the middle)
  • FA (A is the end-word, and F goes somewhere in the middle

You can use this tool to plan and write your own sestina. Click here for poetry ideas.

Sestina Tool

Your Sestina Outline:

how to write a sestina - six tulips

How to Write a Sestina - Next Steps

Learn how to write a sonnet.

Learn how to write a limerick.

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