English Literature
Petrarchan Sonnet

Petrarchan Sonnet

Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

The History and Characteristics of Petrarchan Sonnets

Poetry has been a form of expression for centuries, evolving into various forms. One such form is the Petrarchan sonnet, which has its own unique structure and rhyme scheme. In this guide, we will delve into the origins and defining features of Petrarchan sonnets, and provide examples and tips for appreciating this ancient poetic form.

What is a Petrarchan Sonnet?

The Petrarchan sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet, is the oldest form of sonnet. It was created by Giacomo di Lentini, but it is named after the renowned Italian poet, Francesco Petrarca. Initially written in the Sicilian dialect during the thirteenth century, it gained popularity in English literature during the sixteenth century, thanks to the translations by Sir Thomas Wyatt, a poet and politician.

The Rich History of Petrarchan Sonnets

The Petrarchan sonnet has a long history, originating in Italy and spreading to English literature. It has been used by notable poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Wordsworth, and remains a preferred form for many poets today.

Examples of Petrarchan Sonnets

Throughout history, Petrarchan sonnets have been used in various literary movements. Some noteworthy examples include Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sonnet 43', William Wordsworth's 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3 1802', and Oscar Wilde's 'The Grave of Keats'. In modern times, we can see the Petrarchan sonnet in works such as Joshua Mehigan's 'The Professor'.

Key Characteristics of Petrarchan Sonnets

As with any poetic form, there are certain traits that define Petrarchan sonnets. Understanding these characteristics can help you appreciate and analyze this poetic form.

Stanza Structure

The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two stanzas: an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). This structure sets it apart from the Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets, which have three quatrains (four lines each) and a final couplet (two lines).


The Petrarchan sonnet follows a strict iambic pentameter, with each line containing five metrical feet. These feet alternate between an unstressed and stressed syllable, creating a rhythmic pattern.

Rhyme Scheme

A Petrarchan sonnet follows a specific rhyme scheme: ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. The octave and sestet each have their own distinct rhyme schemes, with the sestet often presenting a different perspective or resolution to the ideas introduced in the octave.


A key feature of Petrarchan sonnets is the presence of a 'volta', also known as a 'turn'. This device signifies a shift or change in the speaker's emotions, often occurring at the end of the octave or beginning of the sestet. The remaining lines then serve to resolve or expand upon this shift.


While love is often the central theme in Petrarchan sonnets, this form allows for the exploration of various topics. Originally used by Petrarca to express his unrequited love, Petrarchan sonnets have evolved to encompass themes such as nature, mortality, and spirituality.

Final Tip

Familiarizing yourself with the structure and characteristics of Petrarchan sonnets can enhance your reading and appreciation of this poetic form. Pay attention to the volta, identify the octave and sestet, and observe the rhyme scheme and meter to fully appreciate the beauty and complexity of Petrarchan sonnets. Happy reading and writing!

The Distinctive Features of Spenserian, Petrarchan, and Shakespearean Sonnets

Sonnets have long been revered as a poetic form, with three main types - Spenserian, Petrarchan, and Shakespearean - each with its own unique characteristics. While all three types adhere to the same structure of fourteen lines and iambic pentameter, they differ in their rhyme schemes and volta placement.

  • Spenserian Sonnet: Consists of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, follows the rhyme scheme ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, and is written in iambic pentameter.
  • Petrarchan Sonnet: Divided into an octave and a sestet, has a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA CDE CDE, and features a volta - a turning point in thought or emotion - often found in the eighth or ninth line. Written in iambic pentameter.
  • Shakespearean Sonnet: Comprised of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, has a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, and is written in iambic pentameter.

How to Craft a Petrarchan Sonnet

To create a Petrarchan sonnet, it is essential to follow a strict structure. The poem should consist of fourteen lines, divided into an octave and a sestet, and written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme must be ABBA ABBA CDE CDE, and the volta should be present to add depth to the poem.

An Example of a Petrarchan Sonnet

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sonnet 43' is a beloved Petrarchan sonnet that begins with the iconic line "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." In this renowned piece, Browning expresses her profound love for her partner, utilizing the structure and form of the Petrarchan sonnet to enhance the emotions conveyed.

In Summary

The Petrarchan sonnet is a structured and intricate poetic form that has stood the test of time. With its strict rules and ability to convey a wide range of themes and emotions, it continues to captivate readers and inspire writers to this day.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium for free

Start creating interactive learning content in minutes with Shiken. 96% of learners report 2x faster learning.
Try Shiken for free
Free 14 day trial
Cancel anytime
20k+ learners globally
Shiken UI showing questions and overall results.