Petrarch and the Sonnets

Last week we had a wonderful lecture by Professor Barry Spurr on the Sonnets of Shakespeare. Professor Spurr mentioned this fellow named Petrarch. Since few of us knew who he was or his style of Sonnet, I thought I would give you a brief biography, and explain a little about Petrarch Sonnets.

Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch was born in 1304 in Tuscany. He devoted his life to the study of Classical Literature. It was his devotion to the church and becoming a cleric which allowed him to travel and study the ancient texts in Latin and Greek.

When Petrarch was a child, the family moved to Avignon in France. It was here he met the subject of his desire and his sonnets,  Laura, in 1327. He wrote many sonnets and poems and this girl was one of the main themes for them. It is rumoured that Laura died in the Black Death in 1348.

The doctrine Petrarch espoused was that humankind can again “reach the heights of past accomplishments”, which he read about in the sometimes forgotten ancient and classical texts. The Doctrine was called Humanism and bridged the Gap between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Petrarch’s writings were much loved in his day and his poems led him to be named Poet Laureate of Rome in 1341. He worked tirelessly until he death at age 69. The legacy he left behind was a collection of his writings called Rerum vulgarium fragmenta—also known as Rime Sparse (“Scattered Rhymes”) and as Petrarch’s canzoniere (“Petrarch’s songbook”). This included 366 poems in the common language of the people and a further 317 sonnets.

His poems helped to shape modern day Italian language. But it is the Sonnets which I wanted to concentrate on.

Petrachan Sonnets have 14 lines. They are arranged into 2 stanzas.  The first is 8 lines (Octave) and the second is 6 lines.The rhyme sequence is abba, abba, or cde,cde or cdcdcd. A Petrachian sonnet has 3 parts:

  1. Question or Problem. First 6 lines
  2. Turning or volta. This is the next 2 lines and prepares us for the counteragument or answer to the question posed.
  3. This is the counterargument or the answer to the question presented in the first 6 lines.

From Visions
Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374)
Being one day at my window all alone,
So manie strange things happened me to see,
As much as it grieveth me to thinke thereon.
At my right hand a hynde appear’d to mee,
So faire as mote the greatest god delite;
Two eager dogs did her pursue in chace.
Of which the one was blacke, the other white:
With deadly force so in their cruell race
They pincht the haunches of that gentle beast,
That at the last, and in short time, I spide,
Under a rocke, where she alas, opprest,
Fell to the ground, and there untimely dide.
Cruell death vanquishing so noble beautie
Oft makes me wayle so hard a desire.
(Trans. Edmund Spenser)

Shakespeare used a different form of Sonnet. It had 3 lots of 4 lines  followed by a rhyming couplet. Each second line rhymed, but the rhyming couplet was different, rhyming a single line with the next.

We studied Sonnet 130 in class.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

The turn or volta doesn’t occur in the same place as an Italian sonnet. It continues talking unfavourably about His mistress until the rhyming couplet. Then he says… EVEN SO… “And Yet”… i still love her.

Both types of sonnet use the iambic pentameter, or 5 beats to the line as a rhythm.

I enjoyed looking at this unique form of poem. I hope you have enjoyed reading it.

Dave

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/sonnet-poetic-formhttp://www.biography.com/people/
petrarch-943889

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7 Comments

Filed under literature, Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature

7 responses to “Petrarch and the Sonnets

  1. Hello there, David. Quite an informative entry you have here about Petrarch! It’s intriguing reading about Petrarch himself and giving insight about his works in literature – I didn’t know much about him, so it’s nice to see his background and his connection to humanism along with the features of what makes a piece of literature Petrarchan. It’s also very helpful when you compared a Petrarchan sonnet to one conducted by Shakespeare to highlight the differences in what makes one their own work. Overall, thank you for this very informative post and teaching me something!

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  3. This is good, Dave. I always like to know the history behind various literary works, and the lives of the people involved. This time, I can read all about Petrarch, without spending hours in the library behind a book, or more likely screen.
    Sonnet comes from the Italian word sonetto, ie a little poem, and like the English word song. There is no reason they should end in the 17th Century, no reason we can’t write them today.
    Good on you for researching this.

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