Italian sonnet (Petrarchan sonnet)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Italian sonnet (Petrarchan sonnet)

Italian sonnet (Petrarchan sonnet): A fourteen-line sonnet consisting of two parts: the octave, eight lines with the rhyme scheme abbaabba; and the sestet, six lines usually following the rhyme scheme cdecde (or sometimes cdcdcd). The octave often poses a question or dilemma that the sestet answers or resolves.

The Italian sonnet originated in Italy in the thirteenth century, but its best-known proponent is the fourteenth-century poet Petrarch, hence its alternative name. English poets who have used this form have tended to take greater liberties with the rhyme scheme.

EXAMPLES: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Vain Virtues” (1870), which scandalously assaulted Victorian mores:

What is the sorriest thing that enters Hell?

None of the sins, — but this and that fair deed

Which a soul’s sin at length could supersede.

These yet are virgins, whom death’s timely knell

Might once have sainted; whom the fiends compel

Together now, in snake-bound shuddering sheaves

Of anguish, while the pit’s pollution leaves

Their refuse maidenhood abominable.

Night sucks them down, the tribute of the pit,

Whose names, half entered in the book of Life,

Were God’s desire at noon. And as their hair

And eyes sink last, the Torturer deigns no whit

To gaze, but, yearning, waits his destined wife,

The Sin still blithe on earth that sent them there.

Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s poem “The Lynching” (1920) follows the classic Italian sonnet form in the octave, which speaks sympathetically of the body and soul of a man lynched in the night, but uses a cddcee pattern in the sestet, which details the unsympathetic reaction of the crowds who come to see the body the next day. Donald Justice also tweaked the sestet rhyme scheme in his “The Poet at Seven” (1960), using a ccddee pattern with an eye rhyme in the final couplet.