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Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop

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The poem Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop is, in my opinion, not only about emotion, confusion and fate, but also tells a story of Elizabeth Bishop’s life. The actual meaning of the poem is unclear but, what is clear is full of emotion, and is closely linked to the spiritual world. At the tender age of one Elizabeth Bishop lost her father, she lived with her grandmother until six years old.

The reason for all the confusion in the poem is because it is about the confusion she felt as a child, the poem is about childhood’s phantasies, a remembrance by the point of view of a child; and this is how Bishop draws a connection between herself and the Child in her poem. Apart from the confusion in the poem, there are some factors that are obvious and clear. Things like the time, place, and the people involved are all very straight forward. “September rain falls on the house. The reference to September tells the reader that it is in autumn, I think the poet chose autumn as the time because it’s a very gloomy time, just like that period in her life.

“In the failing light, the old grandmother sits in the kitchen… ” The words failing and old reinforce this dull mood already created by the mention of September in the first line. The first stanza in this poem is like the prologue to a novel, it helps set the sense and prepare the reader for what’s to come, it makes the reader think of questions that they want answered. “… beside the Little Marvel Stove, reading jokes from the almanac… The mention of the Little Marvel Stove can be to indicate to the reader the time period in which the poem is set, Marvel might have been a popular brand for a stove back at that time.

An almanac is a reference or record to a particular time period, it is in a way a diary, recording events not for a single person but a much wider community, town, country or world. I think that the almanac mentioned in this poem is neither a record of a town or country but of this family. It might be a photo album, full of memories. “… laughing and talking to hide her tears. This is when the poet begins to create questions for the reader.

Why is the grandmother crying? The most obvious reason would be that she is sad, sad after reading the almanac, may it be a world record or a family album, the event in it is sad. One of the major links Bishop makes throughout the poem is the connection of what’s happening outside and inside the house. “She thinks that her equinoctial tears and the rain that beats on the roof… ” The connection here is drawn between tears and rain; this is a very stereotypical situation where we would immediately picture the rain and little tear drops.

This connection of tears and rain shows up again and again throughout the poem. “… were foretold by the almanac, but only know to a grandmother. ” This is the first time we get a sense of fate acting upon the family. The word foretold is a very mystical and often relates to witches with crystal balls. The fact that the poet used a grandmother and not the grandmother shows that this event is quite significant to people of her age. This does not mean that the almanac can not be a family photo album, the event that causes the grandmother to cry might have linked to a family member and looking back at the photos brings back memories.

The current of the poem sometimes flows over two stanzas, which makes it a little difficult to follow, but more interesting to read. “The iron Kettle sings on the stove. ” This is the first time so far in the poem that we come back to reality. “She cuts the bread and says to the child, It’s time for tea now… ” The sounding of the kettle brings the reader back from the mystified feeling that was brought about from the beginning of the poem. It also broke the chain of thoughts going through the grandmother’s head whilst looking at the almanac.

… It’s time for tea now… ” This is the first time the poet makes direct reference to the child, so far in the poem we have being focusing on the grandmother, although we know the child is there we don’t really think much of he or her. By hearing the grandmother speak to the child we draw our attention from her and onto the child. In the third stanza we are shown another link between tears and rain. “… the teakettle’s small hard tears dance like made on the hot black stove, the way the rain must dance on the house.

This time the connection drawn is from the droplets of water from the kettle, using similes Bishop’s brings back the idea of tears without making direct relation to the grandmother. “… the old grandmother hangs up the clever almanac on its string. ” Again referring to the grandmother as old the poet has recreated the feeling of fragility. Hanging the almanac on a string in the kitchen tells us that it is not often used, it is like the memories the grandmother would rather forget. The forth stanza has in my opinion the most reference to fate, it is in the forth stanza that we see fate really come into play as a theme of this poem.

Birdlike, the almanac hovers half open above the child, hovers above the old grandmother… ” The use of the word hover shows us that the almanac poses no immediate threat to the two frail souls. Using the word hover, the reader gets the sense of an eagle hovering in the sky picking out a prey, waiting to strike at any given chance. “… hovers… above the child… above the old grandmother… ” This book of records and sad memories lingers around the child and grandmother like a book from the future foretelling their fate.

Giving a man-made thing a voice is a clever way to let out extra information to the reader without actually breaking the silence kept by the characters. The grandmother obviously too full of emotion to tell us what is on her mind but we still need to know. “It was to be, says the Marvel Stove. ” Even though this does not tell us anything about what the grandmother has on her mind it helps us strengthen our initial thought that she does know something that we don’t, something sad.

“With crayons the child draws a rigid house and a winding pathway. With a simple word picture the reader is told a lot about the child, the mentioning of crayons tells us the age of the child, the drawing of the house tells us the level of education the child has had so far. A house with a winding pathway is a very stereotypical type of drawing that every child in primary school would know to produce. With the clever use of words and a well planned scenario another reference to tears and droplets of water is made. “… the child puts in a man with buttons like tears… ” With references to tears Bishop is able to connect stanza to stanza, whilst at the same time letting out new information.

Linking the almanac to the drawing of the child helps heightens the theme of fate. In this poem fate can be seen from the almanac but also from the drawing of the child. “… the little moon falls down like tears from between the pages of the almanac into the flower bed the child carefully placed in the front of the house. ” This gives the feeling that the child, without realizing it, is drawing an event that maybe happened in the past or is about to happen in the future. The secret of this event may be known only to the grandmother.

In the last stanza Elizabeth Bishop has given us the feeling of a new beginning. “Time to plant tears, says the almanac. ” The word plant creates an image in the reader’s head of burring something, hiding it under dirt and forgetting about it. To plant tears would symbolically mean to get rid of and forget the sad times that cause tears and move on. “The grandmother sings to the marvellous stove… ” So far in the poem the word Marvel has been used as a brand for the stove, never in the sense of describing the stove. Yet finally for the first time we see the word being used as an adjective describing the stove.

When thinking of stoves we think of a dirty and blackened stove, and no matter how much we have seen the word Marvel being used with the stove we never thought of it as being a description of the stove. But finally we see the word for its true meaning, stripping away that mental image of dirty and black, this stove might actually have been a very clean and shinny one. This is also a reference to new beginnings and a fresh start, deleting the old dirty image and replacing with the new and clean. “… the child draws another inscrutable house. ” The last line of this poem is the real reference to a new beginning.

The fact that the child drew a new house shows that they are moving on with life. It doesn’t matter how inscrutable the house is, the emphasis here is the word another meaning something else, maybe still the same, but at least they are moving on. Using language techniques and clever choice of scenario Elisabeth Bishop has told a short story from the pages of her life. With the many references to tears it is clear that the poem is not a happy and cheerful one, but in fact a dull and very emotional one. Combining time, weather, emotion and fate she has left the reader with little glimpses of what she might have been experiencing.

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