Study Guide

Sestina Themes

  • The Home

    Everything seems just fine on the surface in "Sestina." The grandmother and grandchild are in the kitchen making tea and having an afternoon snack together. Cozy and cute, right? But something is totally off here. The house is cold, and there seems to be all sorts of forces keeping this from being a happy home. Where is the rest of the family? Why is the grandmother so sad? Why is she hiding it? Despite the stove and the tea, everything has a sad chill to it, and we can't help but wonder if this home isn't broken.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Where is everybody? Do you get the feeling that the grandmother and the grandchild are the only two living in that house? What do you think happened, if this is the case?
    2. Do you think the grandmother's tears have something to do with their domestic situation, or do you think the two have nothing to do with one another? What does the poem tell you?
    3. What about the house makes it seem like a sad home to you? What evidence can you find in the poem?
    4. How does the description of what's going on outside the house—the rain beating down on the roof for example—affect your idea of the home?

    Chew on This

    It actually is a happy home, it's just a rainy and chilly day. Stop making something out of nothing.

    The child has been abandoned by the rest of her family and the grandmother is sad and worried about their future. That's why they're both so down in the dumps.

  • Time

    "Sestina" addresses the passing of time by the change of season. The nifty thing is, in order to show that time moves on, Bishop actually shows us how it's cyclical. So we get the sense (especially from the sad grandmother) that time is moving on, but progress isn't necessarily being made. It's sort of a "no way out" feeling, which is only enhanced by the form of the poem.

    Questions About Time

    1. Who do you think the passage of time is more important to: the grandmother or the child? Why? How can you tell?
    2. What subtle ways does Bishop show the passage of time throughout the poem? What do they tell you about what the passage of time means here?
    3. When in the poem does time seem to move in a circle? How does the sestina form enhance the effect? 
    4. What's the big deal? Why should anyone care if time is passing?

    Chew on This

    The grandmother is freaked out by time passing because she thinks she's going to die soon and abandon the child.

    The child is oblivious to the passage of time and goes on drawing happily with her crayons. She's not bummed at all—it's all the grandmother.

  • Isolation

    Maybe at first it looks like the grandmother and the child are getting along while they're making jokes from the almanac, but we quickly see they're a million miles away from one another. They're the only ones home, and maybe the only two who even live in the house. The grandmother has some secret sadness that she keeps from the child, and the child, probably sensing this sadness and distance from her grandmother, turns to her imaginative drawing to escape the loneliness. Sure, the two seem to get along just fine, but we can't help but feel that they're too far apart from one another to really be a happy family.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Where in the poem do you first notice the grandmother and child seem distant from one another? What line best describes that distance?
    2. Do you think the age gap between the two of them contributes to their feelings of isolation? Or is the gap between them because they're so isolated?
    3. If they are with each other, why are they lonely? What could be going on to make either of them feel lonely? Do any lines in the poem give you a hint?
    4. Does the weather enhance the feeling of distance and loneliness? How so?

    Chew on This

    They're not lonely! They have each other. Sheesh.

    The grandmother's sadness has nothing to do with loneliness. She's bummed about something else entirely.

  • Transformation

    The turn of the season certainly signals change in "Sestina," as it does just about everywhere else. The weather's changing, the temperature's dropping, and especially through the lens of the grandmother, we get the feeling that some sort of bad mojo is coming down the pike. With all the mentions of the equinox and the almanac, we can also assume there is something in the cosmos that has predicted the change that's about to come, and it ain't necessarily gonna be pretty.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What changes do you think are in store for the grandmother and the child? Are they good or bad? 
    2. Why is September a good month for a poem that wants to illustrate change? 
    3. What do the equinox and the almanac have to do with change? Think about the "foretold by the almanac" line. What could the almanac have to do with change?

    Chew on This

    The change happened before the kitchen scene takes place, and that's why the grandmother is sad. But hey, things can't get any worse, right?

    The change will be good. You can tell by the laughter in the first stanza.