By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Petrarchan sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet, is the oldest of the two greatest and best-known types of sonnet. Although the invention of the sonnet form precedes him – the Sicilian poet Giacomo da Lentini is thought to have invented the sonnet in the thirteenth century – the poet who usually gets the credit for putting the sonnet on the literary map was the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, who is usually known simply as Petrarch (1304-74).
It is from Petrarch that the ‘Petrarchan sonnet’ derived not only its name but its form: fourteen lines, divided into two units, namely an eight-line section (or ‘octave’) and a six-line one (the ‘sestet’). There is usually a ‘turn’ or shift in the poem’s argument or thought as we move between the octave and sestet: a figure known as the volta.
Petrarchan sonnets, ever since Petrarch penned his poems to ‘Laura’, have often focused on love, and in particular, courtly love, whereby the poet admires the unattainable woman from afar, not least because she is often of a higher social station than he is. But poets have also used the Petrarchan sonnet to write about nature, political topics, and a whole host of other things.
Here are ten of the finest examples of the Petrarchan sonnet, with a little bit about them.
1. Petrarch, ‘O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!’.
O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!
’Mid which my pensive queen her footstep sets;
O plain, that hold’st her words for amulets
And keep’st her footsteps in thy leafy bowers!
O trees, with earliest green of springtime hours,
And all spring’s pale and tender violets!
O grove, so dark the proud sun only lets
His blithe rays gild the outskirts of thy towers!
O pleasant country-side! O limpid stream,
That mirrorest her sweet face, her eyes so clear,
And of their living light canst catch the beam!
I envy thee her presence pure and dear.
There is no rock so senseless but I deem
It burns with passion that to mine is near.
Here’s an English translation of one of Petrarch’s own sonnets, which shows how he used the octave-sestet structure to such good effect (we’ve included the full poem above to show how the fourteen lines work together, including that volta or ‘turn’ at the beginning of the ninth line).
Precisely who the ‘Laura’ was whom Petrarch writes about in this and his other sonnets, we cannot say for sure. Was she a real woman, or merely an imaginary symbol of the ideal woman – and is her name, then, symbolic too, suggesting the laurels of poetic achievement? We’ll doubtless never know.
2. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’.
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind …
Written in the 1530s, this is one of the earliest sonnets composed in English. Indeed, Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) was, along with Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47), one of the two diplomats at the court of King Henry VIII who brought the sonnet to England (they encountered it while undertaking diplomatic work for Henry in Rome).
Wyatt was associated with Anne Boleyn in his youth, and it’s thought that he may have written ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ about Anne, who now ‘belonged’ to ‘Caesar’ (or Henry VIII). Indeed, this poem is a loose translation of one of Petrarch’s Italian sonnets, but perhaps Wyatt spotted the parallels between Petrarch’s situation and his own with Anne Boleyn …
3. Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 31 from Astrophil and Stella.
With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies;
How silently, and with how wan a face.
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
The first English poet to write a sonnet sequence was actually Anne Locke, a religious reformer; but the first poet to write a long sonnet sequence, and to popularise it in Elizabethan England, was Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86).
His Astrophil and Stella (literally, ‘star-lover and star’) was inspired by Sidney’s love for Penelope Rich, whose hand he was offered in marriage – when she was still Penelope Devereux – but turned down. After she married Robert Rich, he realised what a prize he had given away, and he wrote this passionate sequence of poems.
Sidney was a great innovator with the sonnet form, but here he offers us a conventional Petrarchan sonnet on a traditional Petrarchan theme: the poet’s love for his unattainable beloved. However, since his apostrophising to the moon would have been a cliché when Sidney was writing, it may be that ‘Astrophil’ is actually sending up those earlier poems in which the lovelorn poet commiserated with the moon …
4. Lady Mary Wroth, Sonnet 37 from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.
Night, welcome art thou to my minde distrest,
Darke, heauy, sad, yet not more sad then I:
Neuer could’st thou find fitter company
For thine owne humour, then I thus opprest …
Lady Mary Wroth (1587-c.1652) was the first Englishwoman to write a substantial sonnet sequence. Not only that, but she was admired by her contemporaries, including the hard-to-please Ben Jonson. It’s said that Jonson didn’t like sonnets – yet he liked hers.
She was the grand-niece of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), who wrote the first long sonnet sequence in English (though as we’ve just seen, not the first ever sequence), and learnt much from him about the art of sonnet-writing, as this poem demonstrates.
The poem reflects the blackest moods of depression, with the speaker wishing to join with the night, since they both embody darkness and are natural partners for each other.
5. William Wordsworth, ‘The World Is Too Much with Us’.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This is perhaps Wordsworth’s finest sonnet. Published in 1807, it offers, in just fourteen lines, a miniature ‘manifesto’ for Romanticism, as Wordsworth bemoans the ways that modern life is preventing us from fully appreciating the wonders of the natural world.
6. John Keats, ‘To Mrs Reynolds’ Cat’.
Cat! who hast passed thy grand climacteric,
How many mice and rats hast in thy days
Destroyed? How many tit-bits stolen? Gaze
With those bright languid segments green, and prick
Those velvet ears …
Another Romantic poet, John Keats (1795-1821), wrote many sonnets, but Keats tended to favour the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet.
However, he occasionally wrote Petrarchan sonnets, including this charming and light poem – about a cat …
7. Christina Rossetti, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’.
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness …
The rhyme scheme of this poem from the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-94) is abbaabbacdcdcd, marking the poem as a Petrarchan sonnet. This is apt for a number of reasons, but chiefly because the Petrarchan form is associated with the medieval idea of courtly love, whereby the male poet admires the beautiful woman.
The woman usually remains silent in such poems (well, after all, the poet can’t get near her to speak to her), so she is no more than a mute object of the male gaze. So it is here with Rossetti’s model-muse, who merely sits and poses for the male artist who depicts her as his own imagination dictates, rather than as she really is …
8. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover’.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! …
Written in 1877 but only first published decades later, ‘The Windhover’ is both a nature poem (the windhover is another name for the kestrel) and a religious poem, in which the ‘chevalier’ or horseman is at once the bird itself as it glides through the air and Jesus Christ, whose power runs through the windhover (and all living things; Hopkins was a Jesuit priest as well as poet).
9. Claude McKay, ‘To Winter’.
Stay, season of calm love and soulful snows!
There is a subtle sweetness in the sun,
The ripples on the stream’s breast gaily run,
The wind more boisterously by me blows …
Claude McKay (1889-1948) was a Jamaican-American poet who is often regarded as the first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike many other poets associated with that period of American literature, McKay favoured traditional forms, especially the sonnet.
And although many of his most famous sonnets are English or Shakespearean sonnets, McKay could also write Petrarchan sonnets very well too, as ‘To Winter’ demonstrates.
10. Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed’.
I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed …
This 1923 poem by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) is a love poem, although not a conventional one. The form of the poem is also a curious choice given Millay’s subject-matter.
In the poem, Millay addresses her male lover. She begins her poem with the lyric ‘I’, describing herself as ‘distressed’ by her inherent womanhood. All women, she suggests, are in thrall to their ‘needs and notions’: their nature, their desires. She is compelled to find the man attractive, simply because he is close to her and they have been intimate together.
However, she ends the poem by brushing him off and suggesting he was nothing more than a casual encounter to her. We’re a long way away from the courtly love of Petrarch: here we have a sexually liberated woman talking about a consummated relationship (or at least, encounter) with a man.