Sestina: The Fiddler’s Dream

He sits in silence, rosining his bow.
Another night, another town to play.
His whole world held together by those strings –
Four lifelines, or four hangman’s ropes. The time
Ticks on. Not long now. In his mind, the tunes
Wait patiently in line, as actors stand

Behind the curtain for their cue. He’ll stand
On stage, exposed, with nothing but his bow
His father’s fiddle and his store of tunes
To offer them. They’ve come to hear him play
Tonight; paid money, given up their time
To witness wonders woven out of strings

Old wood and horsehair. Hardened by the strings
His fingers flex and fidget. Who can stand
This waiting to go on? He feels the time
Run slow as syrup from a spoon. The bow
Lies on a table, tightened up to play.
He shuts his eyes, leans back, and lets the tunes

Run loose around his head. He’s known these tunes
Forever. Since his fingers felt the strings
That first time, age of six, he’s learned to play
Them in his sleep. No metronome, no stand,
No printed sheet: they handed him the bow
And fiddle, then stepped back. A little time

Was all it took. He breathes, drifts out of time
And that green room, and dreams. He’s playing tunes
Unheard, unwritten. Now the ragged bow
Become a lightning bolt, and from the strings
It strikes sparks and blue fire – and there they stand:
A thousand bright musicians, set to play

Along with him. They nod. He does not play
Alone: with every note he’s keeping time
With everyone who every dared to stand
And entertain the rest. He exhales, tunes
The fiddle one last time, and in the strings
Feels magic stir. He smiles. Picks up the bow.

Each one must play his part, give out his tunes
Till comes the time when we must cut all strings
And, silent, stand to take our final bow.


Decided it was high time to have another crack at the sestina – and what fun it was (no, really). This was inspired by the beautiful tune of the same name by the American genius Mark O’Connor: you’ll find it on his album ‘America On Strings’. I was also thinking about my daughter, who’s playing the ‘Meditation’ from Thais by Massanet as a solo at her school concert tomorrow night. She’s completely relaxed about the whole thing, but I’m nervous as all hell! N.

5 thoughts on “Sestina: The Fiddler’s Dream

  1. Hi Nick, this is wonderful! That sestina form really goes well with contemplating and reflecting. And your knowledge of music shines through 🙂 Don’t be nervous, I am sure that your daughter will do fine! Have a great time tomorrow! 🙂 xx

    • She will be wonderful, I know. But as a parent, I guess one still worries about these things! The sestina just seemed the right form for this; as you say, the gentle roll of the line endings gives it a contemplative feel. Glad you liked it. N.xx

  2. Nick, your skill with this is amazing. I tend to love the poems you write about music anyway, and this stands up to the best of them. I remember how your first sestina, combined with John’s first sestina, affected me. I had always considered the form too difficult, but you and John made it sound so easy in the skill of your lines, so I wrote one, and I’ve gone on to more and more difficult forms ever since.
    The strength of the sestina lies in its story, of course, the violinist waiting for a performance he’s done so many times before, building his musical history into the waiting. The denouement of the story becomes a mystical moment when his past, and the past of all the musicians that have ever played, becomes a symphony that speaks to the collective soul of all humankind in the moment of making music. And then the final three lines:
    Each one must play his part, give out his tunes
    Till comes the time when we must cut all strings
    And, silent, stand to take our final bow.
    where the sestina becomes more than a contemplation, more than a mystical sense of inter-generational musical unity across ages, and becomes wisdom. Robert Frost said that a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. Musicians, and poets, if I may add them, do march out on Shakespeare’s proverbial stage:
    “All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players.
    They have their exits and their entrances,
    And one man in his time plays many parts…”(As You Like It)
    “Till comes the time when we must cut all strings
    And, silent, stand to take our final bow.”
    There is profound wisdom here, meaning rather than saying, a song reverberating inside our bones. I am jealous of your skill.

    • As always, I’m humbled by your response, Tom. Thank you so much. As you know, music moves me like almost nothing else in this life: writing about it is as near as I can get to playing it the way I wish I could. My daughter is already a thousand times the musician I could ever hope to be – but she has to write a sonnet for her English homework this week, so maybe her old dad can show her a thing or two yet! And thank you, too for reminding me of what Robert Frost said. By his – or any – definition, your comments are poems in themselves. N.

      • Help her with a Shakespearean sonnet, Nick. Some of those you and I have practiced will sour her on sonnets forever, I’m afraid, if she had to write one. I just tried a Miltonian caudet. She has a master teacher available, however, so I suspect she is speeding toward an “A.” I hope the concert goes as well as the sestina.

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