Introducing the Quintina

by Steven Shields

The sestina is an old French form that uses six end-words which repeat in a set pattern among six stanzas, followed by an envoi that uses all six words again in a final flourish. Six is the number and the number is six!

Of course composers of English language sestinas often make use of the five-beat pentameter line. That’s no surprise: it’s our reference line, the heart-rhythm of our prosody. Contemplating this one day, I wondered if the sestina with its pattern of sixes couldn’t be adapted slightly to a more English-minded pattern of fives. Not finding any examples after some research, I constructed a nonce form I dubbed the “quintina.”

If it takes six end-words repeated in patterned ways to make a sestinayou guessed it, it only takes five to make a quintina. Sounds simple enough, as if you could lop off one of the original six words of the sestina and hey presto.

But part of the genius of the sestina lies in its variety of end-word repetitions: In stanza one, you get ABCDEF, of course, but instead of ABCDEF again in stanza two, you have a different pattern: FAEBDC. Stanza three’s pattern shifts to CFDABE, and so on. This constant shift is pleasing to the ear.

If you’ve ever written a sestina or read Lewis Turco’s “Book of Forms” about it, you know that this shift is accomplished by using a numerical set, a pattern of 6-1-5-2-4-3. In other words, if we number stanza one’s ABCDEF so that A=1, B=2, C=3 and so on, then in stanza two we should have 6=F, 1=A, 5=E, 2=B, 4=D, 3=C. And that’s what we have, FAEBDC. Now, renumber FAEBDC from 1 to 6. Repeat. You should get CFDABE. Renumber. Repeat.

So the task of forming a quintina (or an even shorter form, such as a quartina or tritina) lies in solving a numerical problem of sorts. You can’t just lop off a number and make this work out right. A different number set has to be found or invented. Turco isn’t much help in explaining where the original 615243 number set came from: “The order in which the end words are repeated appears to have its roots in numerology, but what the significance of the pattern was originally is now unknown.”

But lay the components of the sestina numbering set out a little differently on the page and you discover that there is less a mystical system here than a logical one. Look at this:

6 1 5 2 4 3

What I see is a 6-5-4 in a regular (but reverse) sequence and a 1-2-3. Why was this done? Probably because Arnaut Daniel or some other inventive troubadour needed to promote variety in the end words without inter-stanza repetition, and this worked.

So forming a quintina becomes a little game of seeing how to adapt this pattern mathematically.

I’ll spare you the pages of scribbling I went through and cut to the chase: here’s what I found worked:

3 4 2 5 1

So using a 3-4-2-5-1 construction allowed me to form a quintina. The stanzas proceed this way:


Of course, the envoi of the poem also had to be revised.

I decided to follow one of two approaches to the final repetition of all the end-words in the closing envoi.  You can use two lines in either an ABC/DE or an AB/CDE pattern. I suppose it would also acceptable simply to form one end line using all five end-words, ABCDE. If you wanted to be a total purist and insist on a 25-line form only, you might even argue that the last stanza is the envoi, though I think that’s a weak argument that doesn’t parallel the sestina’s form very well. However, if you’re a numerologist and you want all fives (especially if you’re working in pentameter lines), it’s something to consider.

Let me exmplify the quintina with this attempt at using the form, tired though the conceit may be of the Sage and Grumpy Old Man dispensing advice to the Younger Foolish Person:

Poseidon Advises the Poet on His Quintina

“Your line’s so loose, you never catch a thing.
Tight lines! That’s what the Irish swear by,
and so should you. With lines as slack as that,
you only offer bait in theory, to fish as real
and hungry as imaginary toads.

“And for Pete’s sake, what’s with that
pole of yours, that stick?? Are you for real?
You think you’ll hook some reader by and by?
Great Jumpin’ JehosophatGreat Horny Toads!
Aaaahyour verse’s so free, you’ll never catch anything.

“NOW what are you doing?? Wobbling, by
the way, will land your can in Mr. Toad’s
front yard, and then! THEN there’ll be some real
excitement hauling your dilapidated thing,
your dangling modifier, out of the drink, at that.

is over therehere, let me see that thing.
This isn’t any good for catching toads,
or little girls or anything else that
goes respectably about its day just getting by.”

“You need a new angle, son. If toads
were poems, you’d have an anthology hereTHAT,
my gossamer friend, is the very heart of the thing
we call a poem. Observe. Sit still. And by
the way, stop shouting. You’re scaring the fish, for real.”

“One last thing that always gets me by:
Don’t put real toads in imaginary gardens. Lie!”

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