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The Sonnet
[Page 2]

The Petrarchan (or Italian) Sonnet

The sonnet form developed first in Italian poetry; at one time, the term "Italian Sonnet" would have been redundant. One variant of the Italian form, one used by Petrarch and Dante, came to be recognized as the form we now call Petrarchan or Italian. (I will hereafter use "Petrarchan.")

The Petrarchan sonnet's defining characteristic is a strong division between the first eight lines of the sonnet and the last six. The first eight lines, the octave, establish the subject of the poem in a certain way, and the next six, the sestet, counter the octave by shifting the perspective of the poem in some way. The place where the poem turns from the octave to the sestet is therefore called the volta, which is Italian for "turn."

The rhyme scheme of the most traditional Petrarchan sonnet consists of two sets of four lines rhymed abba (each of these is called an Italian quatrain), followed by rhymes of cdecde in the sestet. While the rhymes of the octave are relatively stable in Petrarchan sonnets, poets tend to vary the rhymes of the sestet, using many different combinations of the c, d, and e rhymes to round out the poem.

Because Petrarch's sonnets often expressed a male speaker's desire for a woman (see Al Drake's page on Petrarch's sonnets for examples), the Petrarchan sonnet form carries associations with that mode of address. Perhaps predictably, many later writers have used the Petrarchan form in ways that subvert the content inherited from Petrarch. For example, take this sonnet, number 22, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's book Sonnets from the Portuguese:

  When our two souls stand up erect and strong, 

  Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher, 

  Until the lengthening wings break into fire 

  At either curvËd point, -- what bitter wrong 

  Can the earth do to us, that we should not long 

  Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher, 

  The angels would press on us, and aspire 

  To drop some golden orb of perfect song 

  Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay 

  Rather on earth, BelovËd, -- where the unfit 

  Contrarious moods of men recoil away 

  And isolate pure spirits, and permit 

  A place to stand and love in for a day, 

  With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

Note the ways in which Barrett Browning's sonnet uses and departs from the Petrarchan tradition.

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