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Petrarchan Sonnet

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English Literature

Petrarchan sonnets are one of the oldest forms of a sonnet and come with their own distinct structure and rhyme scheme. The Petrarchan structure and rhyme scheme are key differences to look for when you are comparing Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spenserian sonnets.

What is a Petrarchan Sonnet?

History of the Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan sonnet (sometimes referred to as the Italian sonnet) is the oldest form of the sonnet and was created in Italy. The form was created by Giacomo di Lentini; however, it is named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca who popularised this type of poem. Petrarchan sonnets were traditionally written in the Sicilian dialect, which was popular in the thirteenth century.

In the sixteenth century, the Petrarchan sonnet was introduced to English literature through the poet and politician Sir Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt translated many of Petrarca's sonnets into English, and as many of Petrarca's sonnets were about love, this caused the form to become associated with love poetry in English literature.

The Petrarchan sonnet has been popular in English literature since the sixteenth century, with poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Wordsworth writing in this style.

Examples of Petrarchan Sonnets

Examples of the Petrarchan sonnet can be found in multiple literary movements throughout English literature. These include Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sonnet 43' (1850), William Wordsworth's 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3 1802' (1807), and Oscar Wilde's 'The Grave of Keats' (1831). Modern examples of the Petrarchan sonnet include 'The Professor' (2012) by Joshua Mehigan.

Petrarchan Sonnet: key characteristics

Here are the key characteristics of the Petrarchan sonnet, including the stanza structure, meter, rhyme scheme, tone, and themes.

Petrarchan Sonnet: stanza structure

A key way to spot a Petrarchan sonnet is to look at how the stanzas are arranged. In a Petrarchan sonnet, there are two stanzas: an octave (a stanza with eight lines) and a sestet (a stanza with six lines).

The poem below shows what this structure looks like when written down:

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

(William Wordsworth, 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge', 1802)

Petrarchan Sonnet: meter

Petrarchan sonnets are written in the standard metre for all sonnets, iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter: a type of meter in which each line consists of five metrical feet (or iambs) that switch between an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable.

'Open | unto | the fields, | and to | the sky; All bright | and glitte | ring in | the smoke | less air.'

The syllables in bold show the stressed syllables in each line. Together, the unstressed syllable and stressed syllable create one metrical foot. In the passage taken from the Petrarchan Sonnet example above, it is shown that there are five metrical feet in each line. The metrical feet have been separated with a vertical line.

Petrarchan Sonnet: rhyme scheme

Poems that are written as Petrarchan sonnets are written with a specific rhyme scheme, ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. The octave will be broken into two separate quatrains (a stanza of four lines), and the sestet will be broken into two tercets (three lines). Traditionally, the sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet will provide a different view or idea than the octave – this is why they have separate rhyme schemes.

Petrarchan Sonnet: tone

A key characteristic of the Petrarchan sonnet is the presence of a device called a volta.

Volta: sometimes referred to as a 'turn', a volta is used in poetry to signify that the speaker has experienced a change of some kind. Typically, these changes are emotional.

In Petrarchan sonnets, voltas are used as climaxes or epiphanies. They can typically be found at the end of the octave or at the start of the sestet, and the sestet is then used to resolve this climax.

Top tip! You can spot a volta when you look for words like 'but', 'yet', 'O', or 'never'. In the Petrarchan sonnet example given in this explanation, for instance, the word 'never' in the line, 'Never did sun more beautifully steep', signals the volta.

Petrarchan Sonnet: themes

Many of Petrarca's sonnets were written about love. So, when Wyatt translated Petrarca's sonnets into English, it popularised the idea that Petrarchan sonnets are all about love. This idea has continued throughout the centuries, and the most popular theme of Petrarchan sonnets is love. However, they can be about anything.

Spenserian, Petrarchan, and Shakespearean Sonnets

Sonnets follow a strict structure, and all of the different types of sonnets share these same three characteristics: they are fourteen lines long with a strict rhyme scheme and written in iambic pentameter. However, in other areas, different types of sonnets will follow different rules. Use the table below to remember the key differences between Spenserian, Petrarchan, and Shakespearean sonnets.

Petrarchan Sonnet

Shakespearean Sonnet

Spenserian Sonnet

Lines Numbers

14

14

14

Stanza Structures

One Octave

One Sestet

Three Quatrains

One Couplet

Three Quatrains

One Couplet

Metre

Iambic

Iambic

Iambic

Rhyme Scheme

ABBA ABBA CDE CDE

ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

ABAB BCBC CDCD EE

Volta

Yes

Yes

Yes

Petrarchan Sonnet - Key takeaways

  • The Petrarchan sonnet was popularised by Francesco Petrarca.
  • The Petrarchan sonnet was introduced to English literature by Sir Thomas Wyatt.
  • The Petrarchan sonnet is comprised of one octave and one sestet.
  • The Petrarchan sonnet's rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CDE CDE.
  • The Petrarchan sonnet features a volta.
  • The Petrarchan sonnet is written in iambic pentameter.

Petrarchan Sonnet

A Petrarchan sonnet is a type of sonnet that is composed of one octave and one sestet. 

There are fourteen lines in a Petrarchan sonnet. 

To write a Petrarchan sonnet the poem must be fourteen lines long and written in iambic pentameter. The lines must be divided into an octave followed by a sestet, these lines should also follow an ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE rhyme scheme. Finally, there must be a volta in the eighth or ninth line. 

An example of a Petrarchan sonnet is Elizabeth Barret Browning's 'Sonnet 43'.

 Love is a common theme of a Petrarchan sonnet. 

Final Petrarchan Sonnet Quiz

Question

What is a Petrarchan sonnet?

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Answer

A Petrarchan sonnet is a type of sonnet that is composed of one octave and one sestet.

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Question

How many lines are in a Petrarchan sonnet?

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Answer

There are fourteen lines in a Petrarchan sonnet. 

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Question

What is another name for the Petrarchan sonnet? 

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Answer

Petrarchan sonnets are sometimes referred to as Italian sonnets.

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Question

How many stanzas are there in a Petrarchan sonnet?


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Answer

2

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Question

Who is the Petrarchan sonnet named after?

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Answer

The Petrarchan sonnet is named after Francesco Petrarca.

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Question

True or false: Francesco Petrarch invented the Petrarchan sonnet.


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Answer

False! It was created by Giacomo di Lentini

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Who popularised the Petrarchan sonnet in English literature?

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Answer

It was popularised by Sir Thomas Wyatt.

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Question

How long is the first stanza in a Petrarchan sonnet? 

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Answer

It is eight lines long. 

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 How long is the second stanza in a Petrarchan sonnet?


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Answer

It is six lines long. 

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Question

What is the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet? 


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Answer

ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE

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Question

True or false: Petrarchan sonnets are written in iambic pentameter.

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Answer

True! Petrarchan sonnets are written in iambic pentameter.

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Question

How many metric feet are there in a line written in an iambic pentameter?


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Answer

5

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Question

What is a volta? 


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Answer

A volta represents a change in tone in the poem. It is sometimes called a turn and can signify a climax in the sonnet.

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Question

Where is the volta found in a Petrarchan sonnet?


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Answer

A volta can be found in the eighth or ninth line of the sonnet. 

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Question

Which word is typically used to signify a volta?


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Answer

It

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Question

What is a common theme of Petrarchan sonnets?


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Answer

Love

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Question

Which is another type of sonnet? 


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Answer

Shakespearean sonnets

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Question

Who is credited with creating the Petrarchan sonnet?


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Answer

Giacomo di Lentini is credited with creating the Petrarchan sonnet.

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