"A Miracle for Breakfast" by Elizabeth Bishop - Sestina

The sestina is another rigid type of poetry that uses repetition to spectacular effects.

The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length.

(envoi) ECA or ACE

At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
--like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

As you can see, in “A Miracle for Breakfast” the second stanza uses the same end words as the first stanza in a different order. These 6 end words are consistently repeated throughout the poem to create a unifying idea. Despite being divided into stanzas, the six end words and their repetitive nature keeps the poem revolving around them. In this case, the story revolves around coffee and crumbs that a group of people hope to receive as the sun was going down by a river.

Bishop created this poem during the Great Depression. The throngs of people waiting to get just a crumb of bread and coffee. The crowds looking up towards the balcony where the government distributed only a little leaving some dejected people to flick it “scornfully into the river.” They were all waiting for miracle which alludes to Jesus feeding 5000 with seven loaves of bread and a few fish.

Unfortunately, they would not get a miracle. Instead, the narrator dreams of better days, escaping from reality. The envoi, a summary of a poem, brings her back to reality and as she glimpses across the river she sees the miracle working for other people. This could represent the people’s discontent with how the government were treating them vs. how they treated banks and other corporations. It could also represent the people’s desire to join communism or fascism, anything to get out of the hole they were in.

Link to the Poem


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