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The Petrarchan sonnet (also Petrarchanism or Petrarchian) is a verse form that typically refers to a concept of unattainable love. It was the original sonnet form, first developed in the 13th century by the Italian humanist and writer, Francesco Petrarca (known in English as Petrarch). Conventionally Petrarchan sonnets depict the addressed lady in hyperbolic terms and present her as a model of perfection and inspiration. This phrase is often used in reference to romantic literature, including analysis of Shakespeare.
Petrarch developed the Italian sonnet form, which is known to this day as the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet or the Italian sonnet. In this form the sonnet's 14 lines are composed of two parts, an octave (lines 1-8) and a sestet (9-14). The rhyme scheme for the octave is typically that of the Italian octave, A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A. There are several possibilities for the sestet, including C-D-D-C-D-D, C-D-E-C-D-E, C-D-D-E-C-E, C-D-C-D-C-D (Sicilian sestet), C-D-D-C-E-E, C-D-C-D-E-E (English sestet), C-D-D-C-C-D (as in Wordsworth's "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convents Narrow Room" poem). Because of the structure of Italian, the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is more easily satisfied in that language than in English.
This form was used in the earliest English sonnets by Wyatt and others. For background on the pre-English sonnet, see Robert Canary's web page, The Continental Origins of the Sonnet.
The octave and sestet have special functions in a Petrarchan sonnet. The octave's purpose is to introduce a problem, express a desire, reflect on reality, or otherwise present a situation that causes doubt or conflict within the speaker. It usually does this by introducing the problem within its first quatrain (unified four-line section) and developing it in the second. The beginning of the sestet is known as the volta, and it introduces a pronounced change in tone in the sonnet; the sestet's purpose as a whole is to make a comment on the problem or to apply a solution to it. The pair are separate but usually used to reinforce a unified argument - they are often compared to two strands of thought organically converging into one argument, rather than a mechanical deduction. Moreover, Petrarch's own sonnets almost never had a rhyming couplet at the end as this would suggest logical deduction instead of the intended rational correlation of the form.
Poets adopting the Petrarchan sonnet form often adapt the form to their own ends to create various effects. These poets do not necessarily restrict themselves to the strict metrical or rhyme schemes of the traditional Petrarchan form; some use iambic hexameter, while others do not observe the octave-sestet division created by the traditional rhyme scheme. Whatever the changes made by poets exercising artistic license, no "proper" Italian sonnet has more than five different rhymes in it. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey are both known for their translations of Petrarch's sonnets from Italian into English. While Howard tended to use the English sonnet form in his own work, reserving the Petrarchan form for his translations of Petrarch, Wyatt made extensive use of the Italian sonnet form in the poems of his that were not translation and adaptation work. As a result, he is often credited for integrating the Petrarchan sonnet into English vernacular tradition. The form also gave rise to an 'anti-Petrarchan' convention which may have revealed the mistress to be ugly and unworthy. The convention was also mocked, or adopted for alternative persuasive means by many of the Inn's of Court writers during the Renaissance.
- Octave - 8 lines
- Sestet - 6 lines
- 14 lines total
- The Octave typically introduces the theme or problem
- The Sestet provides the resolution.
- The Octave (the 1st 8 lines) with a rhyme scheme of abba abba
- The Sestet (the last 6 lines) rhyming variously, but usually cdecde or cdccdc.
- London 1802
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: - A
England hath need of thee: she is a fen - B
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen, - B
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower, - A
Have forfeited their ancient English dower - A
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men; - B
Oh! raise us up, return to us again; - B
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power. - A
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart; - C
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea: - D
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free, - D
So didst thou travel on life's common way, - E
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart - C
The lowliest duties on herself did lay. - E
— William Wordsworth
Lever, J.W. The Elizabethan Love Sonnet" Barnes & Noble: London, 1968. Miller, Nelson. Basic Sonnet Forms. 3 January 2011 <http://www.sonnets.org/basicforms.htm>.
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