The Petrarchan Sonnet: What it is and how we got it
Sometimes called the Italian sonnet, the Petrarchan sonnet was invented by an Italian schoolmaster in the 1200s. His form was adopted by the poet Petrarch in the 1300s (hence the name of this type of sonnet). Famous for his vast volume of sonnets produced, Petrarch’s poems were translated into English by Sir Thomas Wyatt, thereby bringing the sonnet to England and English speakers. English poets thought the sonnet was a grand idea, and began writing in the Italian form and then tweaked it into what is now other distinguishable sonnet forms (such as the Spenserian, Shakespearean, and Miltonic sonnets).
The Petrarchan sonnet is distinct from these other sonnet forms because of its beat and rhyme scheme. The Italian sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter (5 stressed syllables per line) and follows one of two rhyme schemes:
- ABBA ABBA CDECDE
- ABBA ABBA CDCDCD
The first 8 lines (or two 4-line stanzas) are the octave, followed by a 6-line stanza known as the sestet. Typically, Petrarchan sonnets have no stanza breaks, even though we can read them as having two quatrains and a sestet.
One of the formal elements of the Petrarchan sonnet is the volta, or turn. Occurring between the octave and the sestet, the volta serves to shift the poem. This shift is designed to shed light on the first 8 lines of the poem.
Petrarchan sonnets can be read as arguments: a question is posed in the octave, and a challenge or answer is given to that question in the sestet. The iambic rhythm is suited to Italian writing, but there are thousands of Italian sonnets written in English.
5 Famous Petrarchan Sonnets
John Milton, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent”
A debatably Miltonic sonnet, this poem is a great example of the Petrarchan sonnet form.
Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
All hail Lady Liberty.
e.e. cummings, “Sunset”
Note how deviations from the form tend to accentuate a thought or idea.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Grief”
Victorian poetry had interesting ideas on what their sonnets could be about.
Francesco Petrarch, “Sonnet 131”
Because what list of famous Italian sonnets is complete without one of Petrarch’s own?
How to Write an Petrarchan Sonnet in 4 Steps
Here is one way to allow you to write an Petrachan sonnet in proper form.
- Ask a question. Or choose a premise. Or start an argument.
- Write out what your octave and sestet will say in plain words. For example, you might have your premise be that dragons are not real. Then have your sestet wonder why they are so ubiquitous in all ancient art.
- Elaborate your octave in iambic pentameter, and in rhyme scheme. This is the hard part! Make sure you know which rhyme scheme you want to use, then work from there. If you need help checking your iambic pentameter, read it out loud (or record it) and listen for the emphases. There should be 5 per line.
- Revise. Try a couple different individual words. Swap out a rhyme (instead of your A rhyme being an “een” sound, see if you can do an “ame” sound). Or just read it out loud, and if it sounds rhythmically pleasing, call it good.
Extra Tips and Tricks
Add to the above list these tidbits of advice for aspiring sonneteers:
- Choose rhymes wisely. Don’t make life harder on yourself and try to rhyme with “dragon” four times when you can rhyme with “fire” or “wings.”
- Try hard rhymes. Having to come up with a word that rhymes with “disaster” is more likely to give you a creative line. But maybe wait till the sestet so you only have to do it once.
- Experiment with your volta. Ideally, a volta should force you to see the sestet in a whole new light. Try a couple different turns (even just in plain words) and see which one you like.
- Use imagery. It can help you find rhymes and adds color to your sonnet.
- Or a simile/metaphor. Because it’s just good poetic practice. Also makes your sonnet more legitimate.
- Vary from the form. Change up your rhyme scheme. Or have a line in iambic heptameter. But if you do this, make sure it’s on purpose and adds depth to your sonnet.
Writing a sonnet is just writing a good poem with a little more constraint than you may be used to. Use the constraints to your creative advantage!
Why have you written sonnets? What do you wish you had known / wish you could know about Petrarchan sonnets?