Sestina: Midwinter

Sestina: Midwinter

So. Winter’s chill attendants walk the earth
And starveling days die young in mist and fire.
Above the leafless trees black rook-bands wheel:
Their raucous evensong laments the sun
That sinks behind the sodden, shadowed wood
And night spreads like a sickness through the land.

How long it seems since Spring smiled on this land,
When wild flowers bloomed on banks, and long-cold earth
Stirred in its sleep, awakening the wood
Where bluebells, like smoke from some unseen fire
Swirled round the birches’ feet; the lusty sun
Bent cheerfully to turning heaven’s wheel.

For months to come the soil will know no wheel:
The rain has made a mire of this land
That, back in summer, cracked beneath a sun
That breathed its heat upon the gasping earth.
Did we once walk bare-limbed in fields of fire,
And crave the shelter of the drowsy wood?

Hard to recall how Autumn dressed the wood
In gaudy gold and copper as the wheel
Sent summer southwards. Then Orion’s fire
Blazed higher, and the warmth seeped from the land.
The birds felt mystic stirrings in the earth
And took their mapless pathways to the sun.

And now we stand our furthest from the sun:
The twilight settles quickly in the wood,
And in the tilt and aspect of the Earth
We reach the moment where the ancients’ wheel
Begins its long roll back. They blessed the land
And filled their twelve Yule nights with feast and fire.

And still we’re drawn to that ancestral fire;
Still counting down the days until the sun
Returns to drive the darkness from the land
And set the new leaves bursting in the wood.
Still following the slow spin of the wheel
That drives the deepest engines of the earth.

I’ll leave my fire to stand watch in the wood
Await another Sun, as night-birds wheel
Above the land, and Winter claims the earth.


I was inspired to tackle the sestina by that peerless craftsman John Stevens; with its strict pattern of repeating line endings, it seemed the right form for a solstice poem. I’ve tried writing a sestina before, but it’s always defeated me: I hope it’s ‘honours even’ this time. I probably made it more difficult for myself than was strictly necessary by writing it in iambic pentameter, but I love the rich feel of that most English of metres. And for the really keen-eyed among you, the ‘So.’ at the beginning of the first line is a respectful nod to Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon tradition. (To see how a sestina should be done, please read John’s terrific The Watch)


14 thoughts on “Sestina: Midwinter

  1. 🙂 Hi Nick, this is a terrific sestina, I love it. You did a great job.

    We are so far from the Sun now, but somehow the warmest thoughts always come to us in this time of the year.

    Merry Chrismas! So! xxx

  2. What a lovely depiction of the wintry months here Nick – AND you managed to do that capturing involving what I call “complicated poetry”!!

    I’m not ready for all this stuff yet, if indeed I ever will be! I’m still learning merely to express myself however it turns out!

    “Did we once walk bare-limbed in fields of fire…? I love this line! The whole poem has a lovely old-fashioned feel to it; makes me want to gather (anyone?) round an cosy open fire!

    Christine x

    • Thank you, Christine – a generous and affirming comment as always. That ‘old-fashioned’ feel is exactly what I was aiming for; I’m a great fan of poets like Hardy, Barnes, Clare and Masefield, and I wanted to do something more overtly ‘poetic’ than my usual ramblings! The sestina IS horribly complicated, and this is just the latest in a series of attempts to crack it; then again, if I can do it, anyone can! N. x

    • Thanks, Charles – it’s a tough old nut to crack, the sestina, so I must confess I’m feeling rather pleased with this one! And the flash mob movie is fantastic – exactly my kind of stunt (if I were only brave enough to try it!)

  3. More than ‘honours even’, Nick – you’ve carried off the prize here. I found, as you did, that with a sestina there is a stiff challenge in getting the lines – with their predetermined endings to feel unforced, inevitable; your lines feel very natural here.
    I also like the allusions to the earth’s annual cycle with the ‘wheel’ of the tilt towards the sun, the turn of the seasons.

    • That’s very kind of you, John – those last couple of stanzas drove me nearly demented. And then the envoi for a final sting in the tail…feels good to have conquered it at last, though! I got the idea from the fact that our word Yule is derived from an Old Norse word meaning ‘wheel’. But it’s entirely down to you that I even attempted to write it in this form: I think ‘The Watch’ is a wonderful piece of work, and it really inspired me, so – thank you!

  4. I bow to two masters, John Stevens and Nick. I would like to believe I have some small skill with the craft of poetry, but both “The Watch” and now “Sestina: Midwinter” have convinced me that I am a beginner privileged to see the work of masters at first blush.
    Not only is this sestina as perfectly done as John’s, but the iambic pentameter adds to the solemnity and richness of the coming of winter and the recollection of the wheel of seasons and time. The language throughout maintains a standard that the sestina makes nearly impossible:
    So. Winter’s chill attendants walk the earth
    And starveling days die young in mist and fire./
    The birds felt mystic stirrings in the earth
    And took their mapless pathways to the sun.
    If I quoted all of the magnificent language I would have to copy the entire poem.
    But not only the language: There is also meaning rather than saying that is as palpable as that in John’s poem.
    In the second to last stanza are the messages, the truth of the poem:
    And still we’re drawn to that ancestral fire
    Still following the slow spin of the wheel
    That drives the deepest engines of the earth.
    spinning the entire poem into a reflection of humankind’s long tenure on the earth within the slow spin of time and the seasons and the winter coming of the Yule season.
    Magnificent work.

    • You leave me speechless – I’m humbled and honoured by your words. I’m so pleased you like this poem; as well as overcoming the intellectual challenge of conforming to the sestina’s exacting structure, I wanted to write something truly ‘wintry’, woven with a reverence for nature and the ancient past. Your seal of approval completes what’s been a tough but immensely rewarding writing experience – thank you so much.

  5. Nick,

    This is a truely wonderful poem – so full of atmosphere.
    I could read it time and time again.
    I am going to print it out so that I can recline in my armchair and savour it at my leisure – the ideal sustenance for dark winter evenings.

    Thank you too for referring me to John’s poem – I had missed it being posted during the ‘busy’ of last week. You are both such a source of inspiration.

    I loved your use of ‘wheel’ as a recurring theme throughout this poem and “Bent cheerfully to turning heaven’s wheel.” is such a captivating image.

    There is something too about iambic pentameter which fits so well with the rhythm of the English language – well done for that.

    My very best wishes to you for Christmas


    • Ah David, you know how to bring a smile to my face. The idea that anyone (especially someone whose work I admire as much as yours) would actually want a poem of mine on paper to read at their leisure is truly humbling and heartwarming. And John’s sestina is wonderful, isn’t it?

  6. Pingback: The Dragon Mages | fourwindowspress

    • Once again you leave me lost for words, Thomas – both with your dedication (which is one of the most amazing things anyone’s ever done for me) and your glorious sestina. Perfect in form, rich in imagery and language, full of wonder and mystery and wisdom: it’s simply breathtaking. I could quote the whole piece back to you, but for me, these were standout lines:

      Their incantations changed from spoken words
      That echoed through the darkness of the cave
      Into a rain of rainbows, dropping shine
      Into the watered depths inside the pool.

      Wonderful. Like you, I have a great reverence for the old metrical poetic forms: one of my New Year’s resolutions is to do more of it, in line with Robert Frosts’s maxim that free verse is ‘like playing tennis with the net down’. And I also feel so much moern poetry is inward-looking, and concerned only with the personal minutiae of life: I think we need to reclaim it as the means to discuss Big Ideas, and allow ourselves to explore mystery, myth and imagination, as you’ve done so brilliantly here. In short, your sestina is a triumph, and I’m more honoured than I can say to have it dedicated to me. Thank you, my friend.

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