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What Is a Sestet?

Angela Farrer
Angela Farrer

A sestet is a form of poetry written with six lines as the last stanza of a longer poem that is normally a sonnet. Many poets who write Petrarchan sonnets close them with a sestet, and this section of a complete poem typically offers a conclusion or resolution to the poem's topic. The sestet makes up the second stanza of a sonnet in this case. This type of poem gets its name from a combination of the Latin term sextus and the Italian word sestetto. Sestet poems can follow one of a few different rhyme schemes according to different poets' subject matter and artistic choices.

The first poet to write sestet verses was Francisco Petrarca, who introduced this verse structure during the 1300s. He is also credited with formulating the root structure of the contemporary Italian language and for creating the first descriptions of the Dark Ages. The Petrarchan sonnet is named after this scholar, and his influence can be seen in the work of other poets such as Dante Alighieri.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

A traditional Petrarchan sonnet is divided into eight opening lines known as an octave and the six lines that make up the concluding sestet. The subject matter of the octave is typically a problem and the topic of the sestet is a solution. Depending on the poet's individual style, the octave is often written in dramatic and hyperbolic language while the six concluding lines have more straightforward wording.

Rhyme schemes of sestets frequently follow a different structure than that of their preceding octaves. Poets usually follow a stricter pattern when writing octaves, with the last word of the first line rhyming with the last word of the fourth line. The last words of the second and third lines rhyme as well. Scholars who study this sonnet structure sometimes report that if an octave deviates from this structure, the poem is not a true Petrarchan sonnet.

A sestet can follow a structure that rhymes the last word of the first line with the last word of the fourth line, echoing part of the octave's rhyme scheme. The last word of the second line can rhyme with the last word of the fifth line, though this structure is considered optional. Some poets choose a simpler scheme that alternates the rhymes of every other line's ending word. The first and third lines would rhyme, and the same would apply to the second, fourth, and sixth lines.

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