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What Is a Petrarchan Sonnet?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Petrarchan sonnet was the first kind of sonnet to be introduced into England. It was first translated by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the early 1500s. This type of sonnet got its name from Italian poet, Francesco Petrarca, a 14th-century Italian. It is a two-stanza poem with an octave, a sestet and a total of 14 lines. The Petrarchan sonnet has an a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-e, c-d-e rhyming system.

Francesco Petrarca was a humanist, scholar and poet from Italy. Petrarca, better known as Petrarch in the English-speaking world, wrote a total of 366 sonnets as well as numerous letters and treatises on a variety of subjects. His most beloved work, however, was an epic poem written in Latin called “Africa.” Despite his love for the poem, few others have held it in such high regard. Such was the quality of his writing that Pietro Bembo, in the 16th century, used Petrarch as well as Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio as inspiration for his development of modern Italian.

A typical Petrarchan sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. The sonnet is divided into two stanzas: the octave and the sestet. The octave is an eight-line opener, which proposes a problem. The sestet is a six-line closer, which comments on the problem proposed in the octave.

The theme of a typical Petrarchan sonnet is of unattainable love. The majority of Petrarch’s own sonnets were written about the love of his life; Laura. Unattainable love is seen as one of the purest loves because nothing distracts from it. A good example of the use of love in the Petrarchan sonnet is “The Long Love That in My Heart Doth Harbor” as translated by Sir Thomas Wyatt:

“The long love that in my heart doth harbor
And in mine heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretense,
And there campeth, displaying his banner.
She that me learneth to love and to suffer,
And wills that my trust and lust's negligence
Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
Wherewith love to the heart's forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.
What may I do when my master feareth
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.”

Translations of the Petrarchan sonnet inspired the first generation of English sonnets. The rhyming system, however, is better suited to Italian and Latin rather than English. This led to the development of the Shakespearean sonnet. The theme of love and ladies later led to the anti-Petrarchan sonnet, which lambasted women instead of exulting them. In the 16th century, Bembo tried to make Petrarch’s style the dominant lyric form in Italian.

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Discussion Comments
By fBoyle — On Oct 26, 2014

What I like about Petrarchan sonnets is that there is an element of surprise. The sonnet starts out with one idea -- an observation, an issue, a question -- and it ends by answering it. If the end is different than expected or surprising, then all the better.

By donasmrs — On Oct 25, 2014

@ZipLine-- If you've been reading English translations of classic Italian Petrarchan sonnets, you may not enjoy them so much. As the article said, English doesn't work too well with Petrarchan. But it is still important because it is the basis of all other sonnets that developed later on.

Read some of Shakespeare's sonnets, they are fantastic. Shakespearean sonnet has a different structure but it's still based on Petrarchan, it was modified to suit English better. Shakespeare wrote many amazing ones, hence the modified Petrarchan came to be known as Shakespearean sonnet.

By ZipLine — On Oct 24, 2014

I can't believe that the popularity of the Petrarchan sonnet lead to anti-Petrarchan sonnet. I guess those who were not so fond of women took offense with the sonnets talking about a women's love and not being worth of it or not being able to attain it. That's kind of of funny that writers came up with a sonnet with an opposite goal -- ranting about women.

But I actually think that anti-Petrarchan sonnets would be more amusing. I've nothing against women, but unattainable love as a topic is so overdone. I find Petrarchan sonnets too dramatic. But then again, I'm no expert on poetry.

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