Petrarchan or Italian Sonnet: Definition, Structure & Example

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      The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet is named after the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch. Sonnet was also practiced earlier by some other poets in the Neo-Sicilian School (1235-1294). The popular sonneteers of that time are like Guittone d’Arezzo - the founder of Neo-Sicilian School (who had written 250 sonnets), Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) Guido Cavalcanti (1250-1300) and Michelangelo (1475-1564). But Petrarch was the most famous early sonneteer amongst all practitioners of sonnet.

      The structure of a typical Italian sonnet of the time included two parts that together formed a compact form of argument. First, the octave (two quatrains), forms the ‘proposition’, which describes a ‘problem’, or ‘question’, followed by a sestet (two tercets), which proposes a ‘resolution’. Typically, the ninth line initiates what is called the ‘turn’, or ‘volta’, which signals the move from proposition to resolution. Even in sonnets that do not strictly follow the problem/resolution structure, the ninth line still often marks a ‘turn’ by signaling a change in the tone, mood, or stance of the poem.

      The rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is ABBA.ABBA.CDE.CDE or ABBA.ABBA.CDC.CDE. The first eight lines form the octave, where lines end in either rhyme ‘A, or ‘B’. Lines 1 and 4, and 5 and 8 are ‘A’ rhymes, while lines 2 and 3, and 6 and ‘A’ are ‘B’ rhymes. In the sestet, the endings of first three lines resemble to the endings of next three lines. Lines 9 and 12, 10 and 13, and 11 and 14 are ‘C’, ‘D’, and ‘E’ rhymes respectively. Of course, the rhyme scheme of the sestet can also vary as being CDC.CDE or CDC.DCD or CDE.DCE or CDC.CDC. Petrarch himself also varied the rhyme scheme of the sestet - CDC.DCD (as in Milton’s Sonnet), CDE.CED, or CDC.DEE. Petrarch’s freedom in the final sestet is carried over into the English form. This beautiful sonnet form is less about the rhyme scheme and more about the tenor of expression. Interestingly, even though Robert Frost’s famous sonnet Silken Tent is formally a Shakespearean sonnet; it has the feel of a Petrarchan sonnet. There is usually a pause or break in thought between the octave and sestet called the volta, or turn. Traditionally, one main thought or problem is set out in the octave and brought to a resolution in the sestet.

      In a variant form used by the English poet John Milton, however, the ‘turn’ is delayed to a later position around the tenth line. As regards Milton, he wrote this sonnet as a response to his growing blindness. The sonnet has little to do with idealized, love but its meditative and. contemplative feel is very much in keeping with Petrarch’s own sonnets - contemplative and meditative poems on idealized love. Some later poets - notably William Wordsworth - have employed this feature of the ‘Miltonic sonnet’ while relaxing the rhyme scheme of the octave to ABBA.ACCA. The Italian pattern has remained the most widely used in English and other languages. However, it is very much clear from such ending rhyme pattern that the octave fixedly shares the same rhyme pattern and the sestet can be formed in a few different ways. In English, the Italian Petrarchan sonnets are generally composed in iambic pentameter as is also the case with English or Shakespearean sonnet. The sonnets of. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey in Tottel’s Miscellany were written in the Petrarchan pattern. Not only that, Milton, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the early 20 century American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay also wrote mostly Petrarchan sonnets. A classic instance of Petrarchan sonnet is On His Blindness by John Milton.

      In Petrarchan sonnet, the octave and the sestet are usually contrasted in some key way: for example, the octave may ask a question to which the sestet offers an answer. In the following Petrarchan sonnet of John Keats On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, the octave describes past events - the speaker’s previous, unsatisfying examinations of the “realms of gold,” Homer’s poems. The sestet describes the present - the speaker’s sense of discovery upon finding Chapman’s translations. The poem has the rhyme scheme - ABBA.ABBA.CDC.DCD:

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse have I been told
That deep-brow’d. Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific-and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

      However, the Petrarchan sonnet was practiced by Italian sonneteer Dante Alighieri in different structures. For example, in his La Vita Nuova, a sonnet “O voi che per la via” (Chapter VII) is composed with two sestets (AABAAB.AABAAB) and two quatrains (CDDC.CDDC), and another sonnet in Ch. VIII, Morte Villana is composed with two sestets (AABBBA.AABBBA) and two quatrains (CDDC.CDDC). Italian sonnets were also written in some other languages like the Occitan and the French keeping the rhyme scheme more or less identical to the Italian pattern.

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