What Is a Petrarchan Sonnet? Structure, Definition & Examples

What is Petrarchan Sonnet?

Formal poetry relies on certain structures to create meaning, and two key elements in this regard are meter and rhyme scheme (order in which rhymes occur). When these elements come together in a unique way, they form what are known as received forms, because we have recieved these styles from poets who first used it. One such form is the Petrarchan sonnet, also called the Italian sonnet, which is named after the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca.

The Petrarchan sonnet is a 14-line poem that typically uses iambic pentameter, that is, a rhythmic pattern of weak and strong syllables in each line. The rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet is somewhat flexible, with the first eight lines, known as octave, usually following the rhyming scheme, abbaabba. The last six lines, known as sestet, can vary from poem to poem, with some common patterns of rhyme scheme being cdecde, cdcdcd, cddcdd, and cddece.

This flexibility in the rhyme scheme of the sestet allows poets to experiment with different sounds and create unique effects in their poetry. However, the structure of the Petrarchan sonnet is also important, with the octave typically presenting a problem or question, and the sestet providing a resolution or answer. This creates a sense of tension and release in the poem, making it a powerful tool for exploring complex emotions and ideas.

The use of iambic pentameter in the Petrarchan sonnet gives the poem a particular rhythm, with each line containing five iambs, or weak-strong syllable pairs, such as 'aRISE' or 'the NIGHT.' This rhythm adds to the musicality of the poem and can help to create a sense of movement and momentum throughout.

Many famous poets have used the Petrarchan sonnet in their work, including William Shakespeare, John Milton (related: On His Blindness) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Shakespeare's sonnets, in particular, are considered a pinnacle of the Petrarchan tradition in English literature. However, the form has also been adapted and transformed by modern poets, (related: Full Course on Modern Poetry) who have used it to explore new themes and ideas.

In conclusion, the Petrarchan sonnet is a received form of poetry that relies on the use of iambic pentameter and a flexible rhyme scheme to create a specific structure and musicality. Its use of the octave and sestet to present and resolve problems or questions makes it a powerful tool for exploring complex emotions and ideas, and its influence can be seen throughout literature and popular culture.

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