Tag Archives: explanation of the Petrarchan sonnet

Francesco Petrarca and the Petrarchan Sonnet

Giacomo da Lentini is credited with creating the Italian sonnet. Later Guittone d’Arezzo tailored the sonnet to his own language and in the 13th century wrote close to 250 sonnets. Even Michelangelo has written some great sonnets.

The most famous Italian sonneteer was a man named Francesco Petrarca. Known as Petrarch in English, the Petrarchan Sonnet has become one of the most widely used versions of sonnets, along with the English/Shakespearian Sonnet and the Spenserian Sonnet.

The Petrarchan sonnet consists of 2 stanzas (verses).

The first stanza is called the octave – because it consists of eight lines.

The rhyming scheme for the octave is:

A

B

B

A

A

B

B

A

Following the octave, the second stanza is known as the sestet – because it consists of six lines.

The rhyming scheme for the sestet is:

C

D

E

C

D

E

or

C

D

C

D

C

D

or

C

D

D

C

D

D

or

C

D

D

E

C

E

or

C

D

D

C

E

E

or

C

D

C

D

E

E

or

C

D

D

C

C

D

There’s a lot of variation in the sestet.

To show an example I will use Sir Thomas Wyatt’sAbide and Abide and Better Abide’.

I abide and abide and better abide,  A
And after the old proverb, the happy day;  B
And ever my lady to me doth say,  B
“Let me alone and I will provide.”  A
I abide and abide and tarry the tideA
And with abiding speed well ye may.  B
Thus do I abide I wot alwayB
Nother obtaining nor yet deniedA

Ay me! this long abiding  C
Seemeth to me, as who sayeth,  D
A prolonging of a dying death,  D
Or a refusing of a desir’d thing. C
Much were it better for to be plain  E
Than to say “abide” and yet shall not obtainE

The two stanzas have differing functions in the Petrarchan sonnet.

The octave is used to introduce the reader to a situation that is the source of conflict or misgiving inside the narrator, or otherwise it may establish a dilemma, or communicate a yearning that the narrator has. Sometimes it may present the narrator’s reflections on a situation.

It is most common for this to occur within the first four (unified) lines of the octave.

These four unified lines are called a quatrain.

sI abide and abide and better abide,
And after the old proverb, the happy day;
And ever my lady to me doth say,
“Let me alone and I will provide.”

The second four lines of the octave are where the dilemma is enlarged upon.

I abide and abide and tarry the tide,
And with abiding speed well ye may.
Thus do I abide I wot alway,
Nother obtaining nor yet denied.

The sestet’s purpose is either to give a resolution to the dilemma, or remark on it.

The sestet’s beginning is called a volta. The volta launches a distinct transformation in the tenor of the sonnet.

Ay me! this long abiding
Seemeth to me, as who sayeth,
A prolonging of a dying death,
Or a refusing of a desir’d thing.
Much were it better for to be plain
Than to say “abide” and yet shall not obtain.

This example of a sonnet was not the type used in Italy. Italian sonnets did not use a couplet (two rhyming lines such as the EE used here) to end a sonnet. But I feel this sonnet is a good example to explain two things.

  1. The different rhyming groups used in the octave and the sestet.
  2. How the change over from the first rhyme group to the second indicates the change in focus, the volta.

Remember the volta is the fundamental facet in a sonnet. With the volta comes the resolution or the remark on the dilemma set out in the octave.

To finish I shall leave you with a Franceso Petrarca sonnet, followed by an English translation. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Hopefully I have given you a clear explanation, and some small amount of Petrarchano sonnet history. Enough at least to encourage some sonnet writing.

Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ‘l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand’era in parte altr’uom da quel ch’i’ sono,

del vario stile in ch’io piango et ragiono
fra le vane speranze e ‘l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.

Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;

et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è ‘l frutto,
e ‘l pentersi, e ‘l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

**************

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes,
of those sighs on which I fed my heart,
in my first vagrant youthfulness,
when I was partly other than I am,

I hope to find pity, and forgiveness,
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.

Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;

and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world’s delight is a brief dream.