The Petrarchan Sonnet

by Alfred J. Drake

Here is one of Francis Petrarch's more typical sonnets, "Number 134," as translated by Anthony Mortimer (keep in mind that Petrarch was a sophisticated poet -- not all of his sonnets are so programmatically oxymoronic):

I find no peace, and have no arms for war,
and fear and hope, and burn and yet I freeze,
and fly to heaven, lying on earth's floor,
and nothing hold, and all the world I seize.

My jailer opens not, nor locks the door,
nor binds me to hear, nor will loose my ties;
Love kills me not, nor breaks the chains I wear,
nor wants me living, nor will grant me ease.

I have no tongue, and shout; eyeless, I see;
I long to perish, and I beg for aid;
I love another, and myself I hate.

Weeping I laugh, I feed on misery,
by death and life so equally dismayed:
for you, my lady, am I in this state.

The sonnet below is a memorial poem to "Laura," the woman Petrarch (or "Francesco Petrarca") loved "hopelessly and from afar" (Wilkie 1586) until her death in 1348. Though some of the 366 poems in the Canzoniere are not concerned with Laura, many of them deal with her in life or in memory. Central to Petrarch's sequence is "the range of moods of the speaker, a range that includes every emotion from spiritual ecstasy to agonized self-laceration and melancholy resignation, every mood associated with love, perhaps, except the joy of physical consummation" (1586). "Laura" means many things in Petrarch's poetry—she is the "laurel" of the poet's ambitions, but she is also his spiritual guide, much like Dante's beloved, Beatrice, and simply a beautiful young female of whom Petrarch was enamored. But most important, Wilkie points out, is the fact that all of Petrarch's sonnets are concerned not so much with Laura herself as with the poet and his task. Here is "Sonnet 292" from the Canzoniere, as translated by Anthony Mortimer:

The eyes I spoke of once in words that burn,
the arms and hands and feet and lovely face
that took me from myself for such a space
of time and marked me out from other men;

the waving hair of unmixed gold that shone,
the smile that flashed with the angelic rays
that used to make this earth a paradise,
are now a little dust, all feeling gone;

and yet I live, grief and disdain to me,
left where the light I cherished never shows,
in fragile bark on the tempestuous sea.

Here let my loving song come to a close;
the vein of my accustomed art is dry,
and this, my lyre, turned at last to tears.

Sonnets and background information were taken from Literature of the Western World, Volume One. eds. Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. New York: MacMillan, 1984. 1586-87, 1593-94.

The Petrarchan sonnet, at least in its Italian-language form, generally follows a set rhyme scheme, which runs as follows: abba abba cdc dcd. The first eight lines, or "octave," do not often deviate from the "abba abba" pattern, but the last six lines, or "sestet," frequently follow a different pattern, such as "cde cde," "cde ced," or "cdc dee." See Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, by Paul Fussell. New York: Random, 1979. Chapter 7.


1. Love as a battle, lover as "foe"
2. Love as deadly (disease, wound)
3. Love as torment
4. Love as bondage
5. Love as a hunt
6. Love/Beloved as ruler/master
7. The power of the Beloved's gaze (as ray, beam, etc.)
8. The beauty of the Beloved's person (like flowers, jewels, etc.)
9. The name of the Beloved/Poet (puns, wordplay, etc.)
10. Apostrophe (address to inanimate object, dead person, etc.)
11. The Beloved as a Star/Sun
12. The Virtue of the Beloved