Sidney and the Sestina
AMONG THE MANY CHARMS of the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, few can match the pleasure of pure surprise elicited by the bold, unequivocal assertion: “The earliest sestina in English was published in 1877 by Edmund Gosse. ” 1 In The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1593) Sir Philip Sidney, usually credited with being the first to employ the form in English, introduces three sestinas, each distinctly different from the others. The first, beginning “Since wailing is a bud of causefull sorowe, ” is formally the most conventional, disposing its terminal words according to what have become orthodox permutations. 2 Invention of this established form is commonly attributed to the troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel and was quickly imitated by, among others, Dante, whose sestina “to the 'stony lady, Pietra,'” is a superb example of the form. William A. Ringler Jr., editor of the Clarendon Press edition of Sidney's Poems, remarks that “the monotonous sevenfold repetition [if the final tercet is taken into account] of the same six words is appropriate to a song of mourning, though Puttenham, the only Elizabethan critic to recognize the form, commented that 'to make the dittie sensible will try the makers cunning'” (416).
I take these two points to be of the greatest importance and potentially self-contradictory. The sevenfold repetition of the same terminal words does indeed invite a monotony that best accompanies a dolorous, despairing, and melancholy mood, such as would possess Dante's forlorn