Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan sonnet is also known as an Italian sonnet. They are fourteen lines long, follow an initial rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA, and use iambic pentameter.

The Petrarchan 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. There are two distinct halves of a Petrarchan sonnet. They are sometimes separated out into two stanzas but are usually contained in one stanza.

The first eight lines are known as the octave. The octave 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, supplying a different argument, changing speakers, answering a question, or anything else that the content demands. The octave always rhymes ABBAABBA but the sestet is not 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.

Here is an example of a famous Petrarchan sonnet:

Whoso List to Hunt by Sir Thomas Wyatt

[read the full analysis of ‘Whoso List to Hunt‘ here]

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.

Yet may I by no means my wearied mind

Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore

Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,

Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I may spend his time in vain.

And graven with diamonds in letters plain

There is written, her fair neck round about:

Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

The division between the octave, or the first eight lines, and the sestet, or the final six lines, is quite clear in this example. The poet lays out the problem 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. He tells whoever is listening that they’re welcome to hunt her but should be careful.

The poem also follows the Petrarchan rhyme scheme perfectly with the final sestet rhyming ABBACC. This is an unusual choice but one that works well.

Some other famous Petrarchan sonnets are:

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