Medieval Verse: The Petrarchan Sonnet

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February 13, 2015 by phicks2012

ctree2Also known as the Italian Sonnet, the Petrarchan sonnet is a verse form that most typically deals with the concept of unattainable love. It was first actually developed by 13th Century Italian humanist and writer Giacomo da Lentini, a senior poet of the Sicilian School and a notary at the court of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, but came to be known for Petrarch, who developed it.

Conventionally Petrarchan sonnets depict the addressed lady in hyperbolic (or exaggerated) terms and present her as a model of perfection and inspiration, and is usually written in iambic pentameter. Because of the structure of Italian, the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is more easily fulfilled in that language than in English, but it also became popular in England.

An Iambic Foot is composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the words “begin” or ‘estate”, or in the phrases “to speak” or “in charge”. Iambic Pentameter will have lines containing five iambic feet.

The original Italian sonnet form divides the poem’s 14 lines into two parts, an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six lines). The rhyme scheme for the octave is typically a b b a a b b a. The sestet is more flexible. Petrarch typically used c d e c d e or c d c d c d for the sestet. Some other possibilities for the sestet include c d d c d d, c d d e c e, or c d d c c d (as in Wordsworth’s “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convents Narrow Room” poem).

THE EXAMPLE: (John Milton)
When I consider how my light is spent (a)
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, (b)
And that one talent which is death to hide (b)
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent (a)
To serve therewith my Maker, and present (a)
My true account, lest he returning chide; (b)
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” (b)
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent (a)
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need (c)
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best (d)
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state (e)
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed (c)
And post o’er land and ocean without rest: (d)
They also serve who only stand and wait.” (e)

My own original Petrarchan Sonnet is printed below. It was written specifically back in 2008 for inclusion in my monthly SCA Newsletter “The Equinox”, and so has an SCA theme, but I hope that you enjoy it – whether or not you are in the SCA.

Sonnet No.21

When morning mists the shore or frosts the breath
And crownéd heads yet slumbering lie still,
Then bards may dream of poems they’ve yet to quill
And warriors dream of wars untouched by death.
In slumber’s fancy rules Elizabeth,
And mighty Arthur strides through dawning chill,
There, men may weave illusion fair, until
As sleeping ends such dreams expireth.
But heralds rise to greet the waking day
And call the dreamers forth from Orpheus’ land
To one more gracious where they may retain
A semblance of that dream, and where they may
Stride forth to glory on a King’s command,
When fair Meridies shall rise again.

[06 August A.S. XLIII, 2008]

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February 2015


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