The Petrarchan sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet, is one of the two major sonnet forms, the other being Shakespearean/Elizabethan. This sonnet form has been used by a wide variety of poets since its conception but like all sonnets, it has fallen out of favour since the Modernist movement of the early to mid-1900s.
Structure of the Petrarchan Sonnet
Petrarchan sonnets, like Shakespearean and all other sonnet forms, are fourteen lines long. In the case of the Petrarchan sonnet there are two distinct halves. These are sometimes separated into stanzas but usually they are one single block of text.
The first eight lines are known as the octet. It sets out the initial argument, idea, problem, or emotional state that the poem focuses on. It is followed by the sestet. This is a set of six lines that responds in some way to the octet. This might be by solving the problem posed, supply a different argument, changing speakers, answering a question, or anything else that the content demands.
The octet in a Petrarchan sonnet always follows the rhyming pattern of ABBAABBA. Sometimes a writer will break this part of the poem up into two stanzas of eight lines each of which rhymes ABBA. The sestet on the other hand is no so consistently structured. It is open to change. Some of the most common rhyming patterns are CDCDCD, CDECDE, and CDCDEE, but there is no set pattern. Writers can stray far from one of these three and still have their poems considered as a Petrarchan sonnet.
Petrarchan sonnets also make use of iambic pentameter.This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
One of the features of this kind of sonnet that is constant with a Shakespearean sonnet is a “turn” between the first half of the open (the octet) and the second half (the sestet). As stated above the first half of the poem often offers something different than the second. This transition from one part to the next is the turn. In Petrarchan sonnets it always occurs between the first eight lines and the next six. In Shakespearean sonnets it usually occurs before the concluding couplet, although there are instances where it too can appear between the octet and sestet.
The turn is more obvious in some poems than in others. As a reader you might immediately notice a change in tone between the two halves. There might also be something to signal the change like the word “However” or “But”.
History of the Petrarchan Sonnet
The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet was created by Giacomo da Lentini in the early 1200s. But, it was used in depth by another Italian poet, Guittone d’Arezzo, who rediscovered the form and wrote close to 250 poems in that form. At this same time, Dante Alighieri, the famed author of ‘The Divine Comedy’ and Guido Cavalcanti were also writing in this form. But, it was Petrarch who became the most famous for his early sonnets. These were written in the fourteenth century and the most well-known were written about a woman named Laura. Through his sonnets Petrarch made popular the theme of inaccessible love conceits which compared a woman’s features to objects.
Examples of Petrarchan Sonnets
Example #1 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. Take a look at these lines from the octet:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
This four-line excerpt begins this Petrarchan sonnet and makes up the first half of the octet. In this section the speaker is laying out the main issue at hand, a woman that he can’t reach. She is depicted as a deer, a “hind,” one that is impossible to reach. The hunt is driving this speaker insane and he’s just about ready to give up.
Here are lines from the sestet:
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
He is telling the listener, someone he thinks might be interested in picking up where he left off to be careful. This woman is impossible to catch. The poem concludes with an interesting image, that of a diamond phrase around the deer’s neck that reads “Noli me tangere”. This phrase from the Bible translates as “Do not touch me”.
Example #2 ‘How Do I Love Thee’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
‘How Do I Love Thee,’ also known as Sonnet 43, is one of Browning’s most famous poems and an example of a Petrarchan sonnet. In it, she addresses her husband, Robert Browning, and lays out the many ways she loves him. Here are the first lines from the poem:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
She introduces the poem and what she’s going to be talking about in these lines, laying out her passion and dedication to this person. She goes on to list out, using techniques like anaphora and repetition how she loves him (“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.