Episode 65

Sextain by William Drummond of Hawthornden

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘Sextain’ by William Drummond of Hawthornden.

Poet

William Drummond of Hawthornden

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

Sextain

By William Drummond of Hawthornden

The Heaven doth not contain so many stars,
So many leaves not prostrate lie in woods
When autumn’s old and Boreas sounds his wars,
So many waves have not the ocean floods,
As my rent mind hath torments all the night,
And heart spends sighs when Phœbus brings the light.

Why should I have been partner of the light,
Who, crost in birth by bad aspéct of stars,
Have never since had happy day or night?
Why was not I a liver in the woods,
Or citizen of Thetis’s crystal floods,
Than made a man, for love and fortune’s wars?

I look each day when death should end the wars,
Uncivil wars, ’twixt sense and reason’s light;
My pains I count to mountains, meads, and floods,
And of my sorrow partners make the stars;
All desolate I haunt the fearful woods,
When I should give myself to rest at night.

With watchful eyes I ne’er behold the night,
Mother of peace, but ah! to me of wars,
And Cynthia, queen-like, shining through the woods,
When straight those lamps come in my thought, whose light
My judgment dazzled, passing brightest stars,
And then mine eyes en-isle themselves with floods.

Turn to their springs again first shall the floods,
Clear shall the sun the sad and gloomy night,
To dance about the pole cease shall the stars,
The elements renew their ancient wars
Shall first, and be deprived of place and light,
E’er I find rest in city, fields, or woods.

End these my days, indwellers of the woods,
Take this my life, ye deep and raging floods;
Sun, never rise to clear me with thy light,
Horror and darkness, keep a lasting night;
Consume me, care, with thy intestine wars,
And stay your influence o’er me, bright stars!

In vain the stars, indwellers of the woods,
Care, horror, wars, I call, and raging floods,
For all have sworn no night shall dim my sight.

 


Podcast transcript

Last month Terrance Hayes read for us one of his ‘DIY sestinas’ – a mind boggling variation on an already fairly mind-boggling poetic form. So I thought it would be good to look at another sestina today, a more straightforward and conventional sestina, so that we can deepen our understanding of the tradition that Terrance is responding to and playing with, when he does his DIY version.

The word ‘sestina’ comes from ‘sesto’ in Italian, meaning ‘sixth’. A sestina is made up of six stanzas, with six lines in each stanza. And at the end of those lines we find the same six words in every stanza, with their order changing according to a set pattern.

So in the sestina we’ve just heard, those end words are, ‘stars’, ‘woods’, ‘wars’, ‘floods’, ‘night’ and ‘light’, which is why we’ve just heard them repeating over and over.

Then, at the end of the poem, we find an envoy, or envoy, with all six words appearing in a shorter stanza of just three lines. I once heard Seamus Heaney give a lecture where he described the envoy as the end words ‘doing a little lap of honour’ at the end of the poem.

As a verse form named after the number six you could say the sestina has a family likeness to terza rima, a form based on the number three, with interlocking triple rhymes, which we looked at in episodes 21 and 54, with poems by Selina Rodrigues and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

But instead of rhymes, the sestina uses these end words, those words that appear at the end of the lines, and the challenge for a poet is to incorporate the end words into a meaningful and coherent poem, and somehow making a virtue of the repetition, so that it doesn’t become boring.

And given all this repetition, it’s not surprising that the sestina has often been used to evoke oppressive, claustrophobic or obsessive states of mind. The 19th century French poet, Ferdinand de Gramont, described it as ‘a reverie in which the same ideas, the same objects, occur to the mind in a succession of different aspects, which nonetheless resemble one another, fluid and changing shape like the clouds in the sky’.

As far as we can tell, the sestina originated in 12th century Occitania, in what is now southern France, among the troubadours, who were basically medieval performance poets, composing and singing their own songs, mostly on the themes of courtly love and chivalry.

The troubadour usually credited with inventing the sestina is Arnaut Daniel, who lived at the end of the 12th century. Although, given that a lot of troubadour forms were based on folk songs, he may well have been elaborating on a previous model.

And it’s certainly possible to see the sestina as a form of country dance for words, with those six words lined up like a row of dancers, who follow a set pattern of movements before lining up again and bowing to each other at the end. And just like a country dance, it’s possible to perform it quickly and skilfully and joyfully, or to go through the motions and tread on each other’s toes in a way that’s painful to watch.

The 19th century English poet Edmund Gosse wrote a sestina about Daniel’s creation of the sestina, which begins:

In fair Provence, the land of lute and rose,
Arnaut, great master of the lore of love,
First wrought sestines to win his lady’s heart,
For she was deaf when simpler staves he sang,
And for her sake he broke the bonds of rhyme,
And in this subtler measure hid his woe.

So according to Gosse, Daniel’s motivation in creating such an elaborate form was to win the heart of a lady who ‘was deaf when simpler staves he sang’. Which reminds me of the biological theory that the complexity of the human brain and human culture evolved as a kind of mating ritual that got out of hand, with men and women creating ever more elaborate and dazzling cultural artefacts and dinner party repartee in order to attract each other’s attention.

And there’s definitely something of the peacock’s tail about the sestina, it’s absurdly overblown and impractical, but at the same time undeniably arresting.

So there’s a romantic explanation for the origin of the sestina, but there’s also a professional one. troubadours were a competitive bunch, always vying to outdo each other with their artistry, and there were high profile troubadour contests with big prizes. So it’s not hard to see the complexity of the sestina as a strategy for outdoing your rival, who may well have rocked up to the troubadour slam with a less elaborate verse form.

So it’s no surprise that Arnaut Daniel turned out to be a real poet’s poet, admired and praised by his fellow writers long after his poems and songs had faded from popular memory.

Dante includes Daniel in his Purgatorio, where he describes him as ‘il miglior fabbro’, the best blacksmith, or craftsman. And we’ve just heard Edmund Gosse’s description, ‘Arnaut, great master of the lore of love’. A few years after Gosse, Ezra Pound was translating Daniel’s verse and describing him as the greatest poet of all time. So we can imagine how chuffed Pound must have been when he saw the dedication of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land:

For Ezra Pound
il miglior fabbro

And this mixture of competitiveness and mutual back-slapping is relevant to the sestina, because one criticism of the form is that it’s a ‘poet’s poem’ in the negative sense, where the formal and technical challenges take precedence over the actual effect of the poem on normal readers and listeners.

So it’s appropriate that there is more than one poet vying for the honour of having written the first sestina in English.

The first one to be printed in English was part of an eclogue in Edmund Spenser’s Shepheard’s Calendar, published in 1579. Although it’s possible that the sestinas in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia were written before Spenser’s, even though they were published later.

However… a lady called Elizabeth Woodville, who happened to be Queen of England as the wife of Edward IV, turns out to have written a kind of sestina way back in the 15th century, which only survives in a single manuscript.

Her poem was a variation on the sestina, with seven lines per stanza instead of six; the extra line came from repeating the first line of every stanza as the last line of the same stanza. And the first six lines of the first stanza provided the first lines of each stanza, which are of course repeated at the end of each stanza.

So if you’re feeling a bit confused by now, that’s normal! It’s probably even intentional – the sestina is clearly designed to dazzle, and right from the very first ones written in English, we see poets playing with the form, bending the rules in order to display their virtuosity.

This was certainly the case with Philip Sidney, whose Arcadia includes a double sestina, one after the other, using the same six end words throughout. And it has been noted that nobody wrote a decent sestina in English for about 250 years after Sidney, perhaps because they were intimidated by his example.

Then in the 19th century a few poets, including Gosse and Swinburne, picked up on the form and started playing with it. And it became seriously popular in the 20th century, where it became a staple exercise in creative writing courses, and sestinas were written by major poets including Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Weldon Kees, Seamus Heaney and John Ashbery.

For today’s episode I thought it would be nice to choose a poem from the early days of the English sestina. I was tempted to do the Elizabeth Woodville one, it’s a brilliant variation on the form, but I decided that it wouldn’t really help me explain a form based on six-line stanzas to use an example with seven-line stanzas.

Then I thought about Spender and Sidney. Both the Shepheard’s Calendar and the Arcadia contain some excellent sestinas, and they are also great examples of Renaissance pastoral, a genre that depicts humans living in an ideal state of harmony with nature, with lots of meadows and gardens and shepherds and nymphs and so on. But I’ve already featured Sidney fairly recently, in Episode 58. and I’m obviously going to do Spenser’s Faerie Queene at some point, so I decided to find another poet.

And what did I find nestling near Sidney and Spenser in the Renaissance pastoral garden, but this delightful piece by the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden.

Unfortunately for Drummond, these days he is better known for his hospitality than his poetry. His most famous work is a record he made of his conversations with the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, when Jonson came to visit him for three weeks in 1618.

According to the critic Michael Schmidt, Jonson stayed long enough to drink Drummond’s wine cellar dry, which probably accounts for the juiciness of his gossip and the harshness of some of his opinions of other writers, as recorded for posterity by Drummond.

So Drummond is a great source of literary gossip from the period, but he was also a very learned and skilful poet in his own right, as I think today’s poem, ‘Sextain’, demonstrates.

His use of classical references and the ornate syntax, with lots of inversions and poetic diction, make it clear that he was writing with an educated audience in mind. So we can probably see what Jonson meant when he told Drummond, ‘his verses were too much of the schooles, and were not after the fancie of the time’. In other words, they were a bit old-fashioned, even in the 17th century. But it’s too Drummond’s credit that he faithfully recorded this criticism of his own work. And I do think this is an impressive poem.

So the scenario is pretty straightforward: the speaker of the poem, who sounds like an educated man not a million miles away from Drummond himself, is contemplating the passing of daytime and nighttime over a landscape and feeling desolate and despairing. And that’s about it.

And because he’s looking at the same features of the landscape and the sky, and circling round and round the same thoughts, and the same emotional territory, the sestina is the perfect form for doing this.

But in spite of my efforts to get as close as possible to the original, pure source of the sestina, when we look a little closer at the form, we can see that this isn’t a pure sestina. Because the end words actually rhyme – ‘stars’ with ‘wars’, ‘woods’ with ‘floods’, and ‘night’ with ‘light’. And allowing for historical shifts in pronunciation, and Drummond’s Scottish accent, we can safely assume that ‘stars’ and ‘wars’, ‘woods’ and ‘floods’ would have been full rhymes for him.

So, even this early on in the history of the sestina, we find yet another poet bending the rules, playing variations on the form even before it’s been properly established. Because of course, there are no rules in poetry, only patterns, and poets love to play with patterns and see what effects emerge from them.

While I was considering the end words, I remembered a comment Mimi Khalvati made years ago, when she taught the sestina, which is that very often, there’s one word out of the six that doesn’t seem to fit with the others.

For example, in Elizabeth Bishop’s sestina, which she called ‘Sestina’, the end words are: ‘house’, ‘grandmother’, ‘child’, ‘stove’, ‘almanac’, ‘tears’.

So which word jumps out of that list? – ‘house’, ‘grandmother’, ‘child’, ‘stove’, ‘almanac’, ‘tears’.

It’s almanac, isn’t it? All the others belong to the same imaginative world, a cosy domestic scene with a child and its grandmother warming themselves by the stove. ‘Tears’ does add a strong element of pathos, but it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb the way ‘almanac’ does.

I mean, if you were given the task of writing a sestina based on those words, that’s the word you’d balk at, isn’t it? It would be fairly easy to conjure up a story using the words ‘house’, ‘grandmother’, ‘child’, ‘stove’, and ‘tears’. But then your eye would light on ‘almanac’ and you’d think, really? Do I have to? But of course Bishop had the skill to carry it off without it sounding strained, and it helps to mark the poem out as unmistakably hers.

OK let’s play the same game with Drummond’s ‘Sextain’. Here are the end words – which one sticks out?

‘Stars’, ‘woods’, ‘wars’, ‘floods’, ‘night’ and ‘light’.

It’s ‘wars’, isn’t it? It’s easy enough to describe a country landscape using ‘Stars’, ‘woods’, ‘floods’, ‘night’ and ‘light’. But where do the wars fit in? They don’t, do they? The pastoral was associated with peace and order in Renaissance literature, and wars disrupt this peace.

And of course that’s what the poem is about. A man surrounded by natural beauty, but who can’t appreciate it because of the wars in his heart and mind.

The Heaven doth not contain so many stars,
So many leaves not prostrate lie in woods
When autumn’s old and Boreas sounds his wars,
So many waves have not the ocean floods,
As my rent mind hath torments all the night,
And heart spends sighs when Phœbus brings the light.

So he’s basically saying that nature does not contain so many wonders as the ‘torments’ of my ‘rent mind’, my torn mind, and the ‘sighs’ of my heart.

Now it might be tempting to look at the historical context and see if there were any specific wars going on at the time that Drummond might be referencing in the poem, but I think it’s pretty clear that the wars he’s talking about are figurative, states of mind rather than warring states.

Mostly, the word ‘wars’ suggests some kind of personal anguish, such as ‘love and fortune’s wars’, ‘Uncivil wars, ’twixt sense and reason’s light’, and ‘intestine wars of care’ (i.e. sorrow). There are also references to war in natural world, with Boreas, the god of wind, sounding his wars at the end of autumn, heralding the approach of winter. And later on we have, ‘The elements renew their ancient wars’.

So the conflict isn’t restricted to the speaker’s own ‘love and fortune’; the poem also locates conflict in the natural seasons and elements. The word ‘wars’ insinuates itself into the pastoral landscape like the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

And Drummond uses all the tools at his disposal, including classical references, atmospheric description, and rhetorical exaggeration, to paint his picture of misery:

The Heaven doth not contain so many stars,
So many leaves not prostrate lie in woods
When autumn’s old and Boreas sounds his wars,
So many waves have not the ocean floods,
As my rent mind hath torments all the night,
And heart spends sighs when Phœbus brings the light.

So according to Drummond’s logic, all the wonders of nature are not only negated by his misery, the more numerous and wonderful they are, the more they go to prove how much more miserable he is. And if you have ever suffered from melancholy, or tried to cheer up someone who is suffering from it, you’ll recognise this as a very accurate depiction of the kind of thinking it produces.

And this pattern, of evoking pastoral imagery only to negate it and twist it into proof of his unhappiness, continues in the second stanza:

Why should I have been partner of the light,
Who, crost in birth by bad aspéct of stars,
Have never since had happy day or night?
Why was not I a liver in the woods,
Or citizen of Thetis’s crystal floods,
Than made a man, for love and fortune’s wars?

In other words, why should I have been born, only to be born under an unlucky star, never to have had a single happy day or night? And why wasn’t I born a creature of the woods or the seas, i.e. Some kind of bird or beast or fish, instead of ‘made a man’ who is subject to ‘love and fortune’s wars?’

And he carries on in the same vein throughout the poem, lamenting his fate with a combination of gorgeous natural imagery and convoluted syntax, peppered with references to classical gods – Boreas, Thetis, Phoebus and Cynthia. So it’s very much highbrow moaning.

And it’s not particularly obvious what he’s moaning about. We could cite circumstantial evidence – which is that, generally, this kind of melancholic pose was adopted at the time by disappointed male lovers. And the fourth stanza does seem to support this hypothesis, although if you blink you might miss the evidence:

With watchful eyes I ne’er behold the night,
Mother of peace, but ah! to me of wars,
And Cynthia, queen-like, shining through the woods,
When straight those lamps come in my thought, whose light
My judgment dazzled, passing brightest stars,
And then mine eyes en-isle themselves with floods.

Cynthia was another name for Artemis, the ancient Greek goddess of the moon. So what he’s saying here is that ‘I can never behold the night, and the moon shining through the woods’ without ‘those lamps’ coming into my mind, ‘whose light / My judgment dazzled’, brighter than the stars. And then my eyes are flooded with tears.

So I’m guessing these ‘lamps’ are the eyes of a mysterious beloved – as we know by now, courtly love poets love to compare their ladies’ eyes to stars. So this seems to be a pretty oblique and romanticised and classicised reference to some kind of encounter with a lady who dazzled the speaker, but didn’t hang around.

And I guess your enjoyment of this poem, or maybe your patience with it, will depend on how much you share the 17th century taste for elegantly expressed melancholy. Personally I find it quite congenial. But hopefully we can at least agree that Drummond has done a superb job within the conventions of the genre.

It doesn’t really go anywhere, the speaker is just as depressed at the end of the poem as he was at the beginning. But that’s kind of the point of the sestina – there’s no escape, you’re stuck with the six end words and doomed to repeat them ad nauseam.

And circling back to Terrance Hayes and his DIY sestinas, we can see that his self-conscious artistry, extending the technical challenge, as he put it, ‘to make the obsessiveness somewhat ridiculous even’, is part and parcel of the sestina tradition, of taking the complex and making it even more complex – as Daniel probably did with a folk song, and as Woodville, Spenser, Sidney and Drummond did in their turn.

So one aspect of Terrance’s innovation is really a new phase of a very old tradition. But the DIY element also gives it an unusual twist, because he’s taking a form that was originally competitive and exclusive – a test of skill and a ‘poet’s poem’ – and made it democratic and inviting, giving us the words and inviting us to join the dance.

Drummond was at the other end of the spectrum, an ivory tower poet who literally lived in a tower, his ancestral home of Hawthornden Castle. But there’s plenty of room for both types of poem, in a form as capacious and flexible as the sestina.

And Ben Jonson may have drunk all of Drummond’s wine, but fortunately his poems survive, so let’s have another listen to ‘Sextain’, and savour its vintage melancholy.

 


Sextain

By William Drummond of Hawthornden

The Heaven doth not contain so many stars,
So many leaves not prostrate lie in woods
When autumn’s old and Boreas sounds his wars,
So many waves have not the ocean floods,
As my rent mind hath torments all the night,
And heart spends sighs when Phœbus brings the light.

Why should I have been partner of the light,
Who, crost in birth by bad aspéct of stars,
Have never since had happy day or night?
Why was not I a liver in the woods,
Or citizen of Thetis’s crystal floods,
Than made a man, for love and fortune’s wars?

I look each day when death should end the wars,
Uncivil wars, ’twixt sense and reason’s light;
My pains I count to mountains, meads, and floods,
And of my sorrow partners make the stars;
All desolate I haunt the fearful woods,
When I should give myself to rest at night.

With watchful eyes I ne’er behold the night,
Mother of peace, but ah! to me of wars,
And Cynthia, queen-like, shining through the woods,
When straight those lamps come in my thought, whose light
My judgment dazzled, passing brightest stars,
And then mine eyes en-isle themselves with floods.

Turn to their springs again first shall the floods,
Clear shall the sun the sad and gloomy night,
To dance about the pole cease shall the stars,
The elements renew their ancient wars
Shall first, and be deprived of place and light,
E’er I find rest in city, fields, or woods.

End these my days, indwellers of the woods,
Take this my life, ye deep and raging floods;
Sun, never rise to clear me with thy light,
Horror and darkness, keep a lasting night;
Consume me, care, with thy intestine wars,
And stay your influence o’er me, bright stars!

In vain the stars, indwellers of the woods,
Care, horror, wars, I call, and raging floods,
For all have sworn no night shall dim my sight.

 


William Drummond of Hawthornden

Oil portrait of William Drummond of Hawthornden

William Drummond of Hawthornden was a Scottish poet and the first laird of Hawthornden, who was born in 1585 and died in 1649. He studied at the University of Edinburgh and later traveled through Europe, gaining exposure to the intellectual currents of his time. The title of the volume of poems he published in 1616 gives a good indication of their style and mood: Poems: Amorous, Funerall, Divine, Pastorall: in Sonnets, Songs, Sextains, Madrigals. His prose writings include history and philosophy. Drummond’s home, Hawthornden Castle, containing his extensive library, became a literary haven, with Ben Jonson his most famous guest. 

 


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