Writing

Poetry 101: What Is a Petrarchan Sonnet? Learn About Petrarchan Sonnets With Examples

Written by MasterClass

Apr 23, 2019 • 3 min read

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” So begins “Sonnet Number 43” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This line, published in 1850, is many readers’ foremost exposure to the sonnet form. However, this style of poetry existed long before Barrett was writing in nineteenth-century England. Sonnets trace back to the Italian Renaissance, in a form that is known as the Petrarchan Sonnet.

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What Is a Petrarchan Sonnet?

The Petrarchan Sonnet is named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch, a lyrical poet of fourteenth-century Italy. Petrarch did not invent the poetic form that bears his name. Rather, the commonly credited originator of the sonnet is Giacomo da Lentini, who composed poetry in the literary Sicilian dialect in the thirteenth century.

The word “sonnet” itself stems from the Italian word “sonetto,” which itself derives from the Latin “suono,” meaning “a sound.” Many Italian poets explored the form, from Dante Alighieri to Michelangelo. Petrarch, considered one of the founding scholars of the Italian Renaissance, likely earned his eponymous credit as a perfecter of the existing sonnet form.

What Is the Structure of a Petrarchan Sonnet?

The Petrarchan sonnet is characterized by the following core elements:

  • It contains fourteen lines of poetry.
  • The lines are divided into an eight-line subsection (called an octave) followed by a six-line subsection (called a sestet).
  • The octave follows a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA. This means the first, fourth, fifth, and eighth lines all rhyme with one another. The second, third, sixth, and seventh lines similarly rhyme with one another.
  • The “Crybin” variant on the Petrarchan sonnet contains a different rhyme scheme for the opening octave: ABBA CDDC.
  • The sestet follows one of two rhyme schemes. The more common is a CDE CDE scheme (where the ninth and twelfth, tenth and thirteenth, and eleventh and fourteenth lines rhyme).
  • The other sestet rhyme scheme is CDC CDC (where the ninth, eleventh, twelfth, and fourteenth lines rhyme; and the tenth and thirteenth lines rhyme). It is sometimes called the “Sicilian sestet,” named for the dialect used by Petrarch himself.

What Poets Are Best Known for Petrarchan Sonnets?

The Italian sonnets of Dante sometimes bucked the traditional Petrarchan rhyme scheme. Dante was fond of “terza rima” technique, which consists of interlocking three-line rhymes.

These follow the scheme: ABA BCB CDC DED.

Petrarchan sonnets were immensely popular in England. Browning’s “Sonnet 43” is a Petrarchan sonnet.

Other English language poets known for the Petrarchan form include William Wordsworth and Sir Thomas Wyatt. Meanwhile, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, gained fame for translating Italian Petrarchan sonnets into English, but he did not personally employ the form when composing his own English language sonnets.

What Is the Difference Between a Petrarchan Sonnet and a Shakespearean Sonnet?

The primary difference between a Shakespearean sonnet and a Petrarchan sonnet is the way the poem’s fourteen lines are grouped. The Petrarchan sonnet divides its lines between an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). Learn more about the various types of sonnets and the differences between them in our complete guide here.

Example of a Petrarchan Sonnet

The touchstone of Italian language Petrarchan sonnets is the collected works of Petrarch himself. English language translations of his work remain widely read to this day.

Consider the following example, a translation of “Sonnet 227” by Petrarch, by A.S. Kline:

Breeze, blowing that blonde curling hair,
stirring it, and being softly stirred in turn,
scattering that sweet gold about, then
gathering it, in a lovely knot of curls again,

you linger around bright eyes whose loving sting
pierces me so, till I feel it and weep,
and I wander searching for my treasure,
like a creature that often shies and kicks:

now I seem to find her, now I realise
she’s far away, now I’m comforted, now despair,
now longing for her, now truly seeing her.

Happy air, remain here with your
living rays: and you, clear running stream,
why can’t I exchange my path for yours?

The verses of Petrarchan sonnets often frame a particular topic or argument of the sonnet, which is often presented as a question.

In the above example, the opening octave offers a “proposition” that poses the problem at hand. The concluding sestet then provides a resolution.

The ninth line of the Petrarchan sonnet, found at the top of the sestet, is the “volta,” which literally translates to “the turn.”

Learn more about reading and writing poetry with US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.