Sestina—a fixed verse form consisting of six stanzas of six lines each, normally followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern. The form is attributed to a 12th century troubadour, Arnaut Daniel, and was occasionally employed by Dante Alighieri. It made its initial appearance in English poetry in the 16th century, fell out of popularity, and then enjoyed a revival in the 20th century.
T. S. Eliot adapts the sestina for the second movement of “The Dry Salvages” but departs from the original structure in three ways: (1) instead of repeating the last word of each line in the subsequent stanzas, he chooses words that rhyme (except for the concluding stanza); (2) instead of a rotating order, he maintains the order established in the initial stanza (a-b-c-d-e-f); and (3) he omits the concluding envoi. Thus:
Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers
Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?
There is no end, but addition: the trailing
Consequence of further days and hours,
While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
Years of living among the breakage
Of what was believed in as the most reliable—
And therefore the fittest for renunciation.
There is the final addition, the failing
Pride or resentment at failing powers,
The unattached devotion which might pass for devotionless,
In a drifting boat with a slow leakage,
The silent listening to the undeniable
Clamour of the bell of the last annunciation.
Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing
Into the wind’s tail, where the fog cowers?
We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.
We have to think of them as forever bailing,
Setting and hauling, while the North East lowers
Over shallow banks unchanging and erosionless
Or drawing their money, drying sails at dockage;
Not as making a trip that will be unpayable
For a haul that will not bear examination.
There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.
Why does Eliot adopt the sestina at this point in the poem? The three commentators upon whom I have been relying (Thomas Howard, John Booty, and Kenneth Paul Kramer) do not address this question, unfortunately. Yet Eliot’s structural choice can be neither accidental nor arbitrary.
Eliot concluded the first movement of “The Dry Salvages” with the solemn tolling of death, with wives and mothers anxiously awaiting the return of their seafaring men. He continues his meditation on death in the second movement, announcing three annunciations: the calamitous annunciation (the death of the body), the final annunciation (the death of the psyche), and the one Annunciation (the death, and rebirth, of the person through surrender to the will of God, historically embodied in the Virgin Mary).
Might Eliot’s choice of the sestina intimate God’s victory over death and chaos in Jesus Christ and the divine re-ordering of time? And that Eliot should also repeat the words from the first stanza in the sixth stanza gives the sestina a sense of wholeness, a beginning and end—the reconciliation of past, present, and future? Another, I think superior, conjecture: the repetition of the a-b-c-d-e-f structure in each stanza itself embodies the inescapability of death. “There is no end of it.” The routine may change but it is only a rhyming, not a real change; the pattern monotonously continues: a-b-c-d-e-f; a-b-c-d-e-f; a-b-c-d-e-f. If redemption is possible, it is only by means of “the hardly, barely prayable / Prayer of the one Annunciation”—fiat mihi.