The petrarchan sonnet
The Petrarchan sonnet (also Petrarchanism or Petrarchian) refers to a concept of unattainable love, and was first developed by the Italian humanist and writer, Francesco Petrarca. Conventionally Petrarchan sonnets depicted the lady as a model and inspiration. This phrase is often used in reference to romantic literature, including analysis of Shakespeare.
Petrarch developed the Italian sonnet pattern, which is known to this day as the Petrarchan sonnet or the Italian sonnet. The original Italian sonnet form divides the poem’s 14 lines into two parts, an octave (first eight lines) and a sestet (last six lines). The rhyme scheme for the octave is typically abbaabba. There are a few possibilities for the sestet, including cdecde, cdcdcd, and cdcdee. This form was used in the earliest English sonnets by Wyatt and others. For background on the pre-English sonnet, see Robert Canary’s web page, The Continental Origins of the Sonnet. .
Because of the structure of Italian, the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is more easily fulfilled in that language than in English. The first eight lines create an octave, with the rhyme scheme a b b a a b b a. The last six lines make up a sestet and may consist of following rhyme schemes: 1) c d d c d d 2) c d e c d e 3) c d c d c d 4) c d d c e e
The octave and sestet have special functions in a Petrarchan sonnet. The octave’s purpose is to introduce a problem, express a desire, reflect on reality, or otherwise present a situation that causes doubt or conflict within the speaker. It usually does this by introducing the problem within its first quatrain (unified four-line section) and developing it in the second. The beginning of the sestet is known as the volta, and it introduces a pronounced change in tone in the sonnet; the sestet’s purpose as a whole is to make a comment on the problem or to apply a solution to it.
Poets adopting the Petrarchan sonnet form take liberties with it in that they do not necessarily restrict themselves to the strict metrical or rhyme schemes of the traditional Petrarchan form; some use iambic hexameter, while others do not observe the octave-sestet division created by the traditional rhyme scheme. Whatever the changes made by poets exercising artistic license, no “proper” Italian sonnet has more than five different rhymes in it.