Based around the structure made famous by the thirteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch, the sonnets on this list range in theme and subject matter. From Wordsworth to Edna St. Vincent Millay, each poet used Petrarch’s famous sonnet form differently.
Famous Petrarchan Poems
- 1 Composed upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth
- 2 Holy Sonnets: At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow by John Donne
- 3 The Grave of Keats by Oscar Wilde
- 4 I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed by Edna St. Vincent Millay
- 5 Whoso List to Hunt by Sir Thomas Wyatt
- 6 Sonnet 24: Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- 7 Our Mothers by Christina Rossetti
- 8 London, 1802 by William Wordsworth
- 9 How Do I Love Thee by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- 10 My own heart let me more have pity on by Gerard Manley Hopkins
In this poem, Wordsworth provides the reader with the words of a speaker a looks out over London on an early morning. It is quiet and dawn is just touching the horizon. While looking out over his city the speaker compares the natural world to the city that is situated within it. While they are different they are also so similar that it is hard to tell them apart. The city may be, the poem suggests, an extension of nature itself.
‘Holy Sonnet 7’ by John Donne contains a speaker’s description of Judgment Day and an appeal to God to forgive him for his sins. It is a fourteen-line Petrarchan sonnet that is contained within one block of text. A Petrarchan sonnet is also often referred to as an Italian sonnet and can be divided into one set of eight lines, or octet, and one set of six, known as a sestet. As is traditional within sonnets, Donne’s ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow’ contains a turn or volta between these two sections. In the case of this piece, the turn is marked by the word “But.” It signals a return to the present and the speaker’s desire rest, repent, and seek God’s pardon.
“The Grave of Keats” by Oscar Wilde describes the physical state of the John Keats’ grave and the emotional impact that his short life had on England. Wilde’s speaker, who is very likely the poet himself, begins by hoping to cheer up his own, and the reader’s mood. He is seeking to depict the new world (Heaven) alongside God that Keats is now residing in. He is beyond the problems and discomforts of the world. as being the finest English “poet-painter” since the Greek poets of old. He made a monumental impact on the speaker’s life and on his readers.
“I, Being born a Woman and Distressed” by Edna St. Vincent Millay describes the emotional “frenzy” that relationships can evoke in women and how one may walk away, unpossessed. The poem begins with the speaker describing her own emotions when she is confronted with a potential lover. Her female biology makes her desire him whether her brain wants to or not. It is a feeling of “zest” she gets for the weight of him upon her. It is necessary as a woman to remember that one has the power to walk away. She can be with a man, and then leave him if they have no emotional or mental connection. She is not made to be possessed.
Whoso List to Hunt by Sir Thomas Wyatt
One of the best examples of poets who were inspired by Petrarch is Sir Thomas Wyatt whose most famous poem ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ makes use of the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet form. The bulk of the poem is made up of the speaker describing his distress over a woman, depicted as a female deer. He has tried and tried to catch her but has been unable to. The hunt has begun to drive him insane and he offers it up to anyone who thinks they can take it on. There is an interesting contextual history to this piece as well that you can dig into in the full analysis.
‘Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a Petrarchan sonnet that proposes a resolution to the world’s strife that everyone turns to and accepts love. The blade of the knife in this poem is used to describe the terrors of the world. The poem informs the reader that it is now out of reach and cannot do harm to anyone. The hand that closed this knife belongs to Love. Or as later made clear, the hand of God’s love. Those who would seek to do other’s harm for their own benefit. The poem concludes with the speaker promoting the love that God fosters and the strength he has to control life and death. No man will be able to change the world in the way that God’s love is able to.
A lesser-known poem on this list, but one that certainly belongs here, ‘Our Mother’ contains a speaker’s emotional depiction of mothers and their children, as well as questions about the afterlife. They live hard, brave, and troubled lives that stay with their children. This is due to their graciousness in life and death. The poem concludes with the speaker wondering over whether or not the mothers in Paradise can see their children below.
The second poem on this list by Wordsworth and the second to a addressees London. ‘London 1802’ is filled with the words of a speaker who feels disappointed in the lives of English men and women. At the same time, Wordsworth also eulogies John Milton. Wordsworth believes that in another time, such as that of Milton, things were different. England was a different country, one that was filled with art and literature but those virtues have been lost.
‘How Do I Love Thee,’ also known as Sonnet 43, is one of Browning’s most famous poems. In it, she addresses her husband, Robert Browning, and lays out the many ways she loves him. She goes on to list out, using techniques like anaphora and repetition how she loves him. She experiences this love “freely,” “purely,” and with passion. In the second half of the poem, she turns to address the facts of life and death and how she hopes that after death God will allow her to continue loving him as she does now.
‘My own heart let me more have pity on’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins contains the thoughts of a speaker who is seeking a way out of his own depressed mental state. While this isn’t a perfect example of a Petrarchan sonnet, the majority of the lines do conform to iambic pentameter. The speaker is looking for a new way of thinking, one that allows for self-pity and comfort. He compares his previous inability to find comfort in a blind person’s search for light or water. In the second stanza, he outlines the fact that any hope or love he’s going to receive will come from God. It is only God who has the ability to control the outcomes of the world and the speaker’s going to let that fact guide him. The poem ends on a very hopeful note with the depiction of a sky, lit up between mountains.