Petrarchan Sonnet

Petrarchan sonnets are one of the oldest forms of a sonnet and come with their own distinct structure and rhyme scheme. The Petrarchan structure and rhyme scheme are key differences to look for when you are comparing Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spenserian sonnets. In this article, we will show you some key examples to help you understand the differences between all the different sonnets. 

Petrarchan Sonnet Petrarchan Sonnet

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Table of contents

    What is a Petrarchan Sonnet?

    Petrarchan sonnets are defined as a sonnet form named after Francesco Petrarca. Its main characteristic is 14 lines that have been divided into two sections.

    • The first section is an eight-line stanza with a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA
    • The second section is a six-line stanza with a rhyme scheme of CDCDCD

    History of the Petrarchan Sonnet

    The Petrarchan sonnet (sometimes referred to as the Italian sonnet) is the oldest form of the sonnet and was created in Italy. The form was created by Giacomo di Lentini; however, it is named after the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca who popularised this type of poem. Petrarchan sonnets were traditionally written in the Sicilian dialect, which was popular in the thirteenth century.

    Petrarchan Sonnet, Petrarca, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Petrachan sonnet is named after Petrarca, who was an Italian poet from the 14th century.

    In the sixteenth century, the Petrarchan sonnet was introduced to English literature through the poet and politician Sir Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt translated many of Petrarca's sonnets into English, and as many of Petrarca's sonnets were about love, this caused the form to become associated with love poetry in English literature.

    The Petrarchan sonnet has been popular in English literature since the sixteenth century, with poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Wordsworth writing in this style.

    Examples of Petrarchan Sonnets

    An example of a Petrarchan sonnet can be found in multiple literary movements throughout English literature. Some Petrarchan sonnet examples include:

    • Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sonnet 43' (1850),
    • William Wordsworth's 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3 1802' (1807),
    • and Oscar Wilde's 'The Grave of Keats' (1831).
    • Modern examples of the Petrarchan sonnet include 'The Professor' (2012) by Joshua Mehigan.

    Petrarchan Sonnets: key characteristics

    Here are the key characteristics and examples of Petrarchan sonnets, including the stanza structure, meter, rhyme scheme, tone, and themes.

    Petrarchan Sonnet: stanza structure

    A key way to spot Petrarchan sonnets is to look at how the stanzas are arranged. As said earlier, in a Petrarchan sonnet, there are two stanzas: an octave (a stanza with eight lines) and a sestet (a stanza with six lines).

    The poem below shows what this structure looks like when written down:

    Earth has not any thing to show more fair:

    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

    A sight so touching in its majesty:

    This City now doth, like a garment, wear

    The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

    Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

    Never did sun more beautifully steep

    In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

    Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

    The river glideth at his own sweet will:

    Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

    And all that mighty heart is lying still!

    (William Wordsworth, 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge', 1802)

    Petrarchan Sonnet: meter

    Petrarchan sonnets are written in the standard metre for all sonnets, iambic pentameter. Take a look at the Petrarchan sonnet examples of meter below:

    Iambic pentameter: a type of meter in which each line consists of five metrical feet (or iambs) that switch between an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable.

    'Open | unto | the fields, | and to | the sky; All bright | and glitte | ring in | the smoke | less air.'

    The syllables in bold show the stressed syllables in each line. Together, the unstressed syllable and stressed syllable create one metrical foot. In the passage taken from the Petrarchan Sonnet example above, it is shown that there are five metrical feet in each line. The metrical feet have been separated with a vertical line.

    Petrarchan Sonnet: rhyme scheme

    The rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet is usually ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. The octave will be broken into two separate quatrains (a stanza of four lines), and the sestet will be broken into two tercets (three lines). Traditionally, the sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet will provide a different view or idea than the octave – this is why they have separate rhyme schemes.

    Petrarchan Sonnet: tone

    A key characteristic of Petrarchan sonnets is the presence of a device called a volta.

    Volta: sometimes referred to as a 'turn', a volta is used in poetry to signify that the speaker has experienced a change of some kind. Typically, these changes are emotional.

    In Petrarchan sonnets, voltas are used as climaxes or epiphanies. They can typically be found at the end of the octave or at the start of the sestet, and the sestet is then used to resolve this climax.

    Top tip! You can spot a volta when you look for words like 'but', 'yet', 'O', or 'never'. In the Petrarchan sonnet example given in this explanation, for instance, the word 'never' in the line, 'Never did sun more beautifully steep', signals the volta.

    Petrarchan Sonnet: themes

    Many of Petrarca's sonnets were written about love. Qhen Wyatt translated Petrarca's sonnets into English, it popularised the idea that Petrarchan sonnets are all about love. This idea has continued throughout the centuries, and the most popular theme of Petrarchan sonnets is love. However, they can be about anything.

    Spenserian, Petrarchan, and Shakespearean Sonnets

    Sonnets follow a strict structure, and all of the different types of sonnets share these same three characteristics: they are fourteen lines long with a strict rhyme scheme and written in iambic pentameter. However, in other areas, different types of sonnets will follow different rules. Use the table below to remember the key differences between Spenserian sonnets, Petrarchan sonnets, and Shakespearean sonnets.

    Petrarchan Sonnets

    Shakespearean Sonnets

    Spenserian Sonnets

    Lines Numbers




    Stanza Structures

    One Octave

    One Sestet

    Three Quatrains

    One Couplet

    Three Quatrains

    One Couplet





    Rhyme Scheme








    Petrarchan Sonnet - Key takeaways

    • The Petrarchan sonnet was popularised by Francesco Petrarca.
    • The Petrarchan sonnet was introduced to English literature by Sir Thomas Wyatt.
    • The Petrarchan sonnet is comprised of one octave and one sestet.
    • The Petrarchan sonnet's rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CDE CDE.
    • The Petrarchan sonnet features a volta.
    • The Petrarchan sonnet is written in iambic pentameter.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Petrarchan Sonnet

    What is a Petrarchan sonnet? 

    A Petrarchan sonnet is a type of sonnet that is composed of one octave and one sestet. 

    How many lines are in a Petrarchan sonnet? 

    There are fourteen lines in a Petrarchan sonnet. 

    How to write a Petrarchan sonnet? 

    To write a Petrarchan sonnet the poem must be fourteen lines long and written in iambic pentameter. The lines must be divided into an octave followed by a sestet, these lines should also follow an ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE rhyme scheme. Finally, there must be a volta in the eighth or ninth line. 

    What is a Petrarchan sonnet example? 

    An example of a Petrarchan sonnet is Elizabeth Barret Browning's 'Sonnet 43'.

    What is the theme of a Petrarchan sonnet? 

     Love is a common theme of a Petrarchan sonnet. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How many stanzas are there in a Petrarchan sonnet?

    What is the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet? 

    True or false: Petrarchan sonnets are written in iambic pentameter.

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