Petrarchan Sonnet: Rhyme Scheme, Format & Example Poems

Petrarchan Sonnet: Rhyme Scheme, Format & Example Poems
The sonnet is one of the most well-respected poetic forms in the English language, but did you know that this form began in Italian? Explore the inner workings of the Petrarchan sonnet and break down examples from Emma Lazarus and Joshua Mehigan.
What Is a Petrarchan Sonnet?
When we talk about formal poetry, we usually describe a poem using terms like meter, which is the pattern of weak and strong syllables in a line, and rhyme scheme, which is the order in which rhymes occur. Sometimes, rhyme and meter come together to make a unique pattern that takes on a life of its own. We call such patterns received forms because we have ‘received’ them from the poets who first used the pattern.
In this lesson, we’ll look at one of the most important received forms in English literature. This form is the Petrarchan sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet. Named after 14-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, the Petrarchan sonnet is a 14-line poem that uses iambic pentameter and a somewhat flexible rhyme scheme.
When I use the term ‘iambic pentameter,’ I simply mean that each line contains five iambs, or a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable, such as the word ‘aRISE’ or the phrase ‘the NIGHT.’ For the purposes of this lesson, however, we’ll be focusing more on the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet.
When I say that rhyme scheme is somewhat flexible, I mean that the first eight lines, or octave, of a Petrarchan sonnet almost always follows the same rhyme scheme: abbaabba. A good way to remember this is to think of the Swedish pop band ABBA. The rhyme scheme of the last six lines, or sestet, of a Petrarchan sonnet varies from poem to poem. Some of the most common rhyme schemes for the sestet are cdecde, cdcdcd, cddcdd, and cddece. Of course, these aren’t the only rhyme schemes available for the sestet.
Emma Lazarus’ ‘The New Colossus’
Did you know that one of the most enduring poems in American history is a Petrarchan sonnet? In 1903, this poem was engraved on a plaque and placed on the lower level of the Statue of Liberty, where it can still be found today. This poem is ‘The New Colossus’ by Emma Lazarus. Let’s take a look at it:
‘Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, (a)
With conquering limbs astride from land to land; (b)
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand (b)
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame (a)
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name (a)
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand (b)
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command (b)
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. (a)
‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she (c)
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor, (d)
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, (c)
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. (d)
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, (c)
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ (d)
In order to determine whether a poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, we have to look for two signs. The first sign is that the poem has 14 lines. The next sign is the nature of the poem’s rhyme scheme. It’s easier to look for the ‘abbaabba’ than for the rhyme scheme in the sestet. Chances are, if a poem has 14 lines and an octave that follows an ‘abbaabba’ rhyme scheme, you’ve encountered a Petrarchan sonnet. ‘The New Colossus’ certainly fits the bill!
Another important aspect of the Petrarchan sonnet is what occurs between the octave and the sestet. Usually, the first eight lines introduce an idea, question, or problem, and the last six lines provide a solution or a new perspective. The change that takes place is known as a volta, which means ‘turn’ in Italian.
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