Petrarch's and Shakespeare's Sonnets

Petrarch's and Shakespeare's Sonnets

The sonnet is a fourteen-line poem finding its origins in Italy around 1235 AD. While the early sonneteers experimented with patterns, Francesco Petrarch began to solidify sonnet structure. The Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet consists of an octave and a sestet. The octave can be broken down into two quatrains; likewise, the sestet is made up of two tercets. The octave presents an idea to be contrasted by the ending sestet. The particular quatrains and tercets are divided by change in rhyme. Petrarch typically used an ABBA ABBA pattern for the octave, followed by either CDE CDE or CDC DCD rhymes in the sestet. The rhyme scheme and structure work together to emphasize the idea of the poem: the first quatrain presents the theme and the second expands on it. The repeated rhyme scheme within the octave strengthens the idea. The sestet, with either two or three different rhymes, uses its first tercet to reflect on the theme and the last to conclude.

William Shakespeare utilized the sonnet in love poetry of his own, employing the sonnet structure conventionalized by English poets Wyatt and Surrey. This structure, known as the English or Shakespearean sonnet, consists of three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The rhyme scheme is a simple ABAB CDCD EFEF GG format. The effect is “like going for a short drive with a very fast driver: the first lines, even the first quatrain, are in low gear; then the second and third accelerate sharply, and ideas and metaphors flash past; and then there is a sudden throttling-back, and one glides to a stop in the couplet” (Spiller 159). Like Petrarch, Shakespeare used structure to explore the multiple facets of a theme in a short piece.


:In what bright realm, what sphere of radiant thought A
:Did Nature find the model whence she drew B :That delicate dazzling image where we view B :Here on this earth what she in heaven wrought? A :What fountain-haunting nymph, what dryad, sought A :In groves, such golden tresses ever threw B :Upon the gust? What heart such virtues knew?— B :Though her chief virtue with my death is frought. A :He looks in vain for heavenly beauty, he C :Who never looked upon her perfect eyes, D :The vivid blue orbs turning brilliantly – C :He does not know how Love yields and denies; D :He only knows, who knows how sweetly she C :Can talk and laugh, the sweetness of her sighs. D

(Translation of Petrarch, Sonnet 159)

While the poem as a whole aims at praising love, the focus shifts at the break between octave and sestet. In the first eight lines, the speaker poses a series of questions in admiration of a beloved; the last six lament the man who has not experienced love.

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

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 130)

The beloved here is contrasted with conventional beauty; each quatrain primarily addresses a different sense. The changing rhymes emphasize this shift in focus while the continuing pattern adds continuity. The independently rhymed couplet introduces a new point: the speaker reiterates his affection despite her contradiction to standards of beauty.

Comparing Sonnet Sequences

The term sonnet sequence might be rephrased as series or cycle of sonnets. Sonnets become more significant when they are read in the order that the poet places them, as opposed to reading them at random. Thus, the most unusual aspect of such a sequence is the sense of a “unity within a larger unity." [“The Term Sonnet Sequence”, William T. Going, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 62, No. 6. (June, 1947), pp. 400-402- JSTOR]

Sonnet sequences do not follow a spelled-out narrative progression, nor are they simply compilations of random poems with similar themes, “they are something in between." [Almost all of the quotations for the remainder of this comparison are extracted from pages 360-384 of Carol Thomas Neely’s “The Structure of English Renaissance Sonnet Sequence”. A reference is noted for the one exception in paragraph four. ] The structure lies in the beginnings and endings of the sequences, and in their overall thematic advancements. The beginnings of the sequences usually contain sonnets that “introduce characters, plot, and themes” (363). The commencing sonnets suggest an account of the birth of a love “experience” (363) and hopefully foresee a happy ending. However, there is often also a sense of knowing the actual outcome of the sequence. In turn, the idea that the poet is in the middle of the experience, and knows its ending at the same time gives the sequence a “structural and narrative control” (363). The ultimate goal of the poet in both English and Italian sequences is to win the beloved, which he can only do if he “declares and analyzes his passion, celebrates and courts the beloved, and writes poetry to please her/him” (363).

Many English sonnet sequences start with addresses to the reader, and “many of [these addresses] specifically raise questions about the relationship between being in love and writing and reading love sonnets” (364). The beloved is a major interest of sonnet sequences, but the poetry itself is also an important focus. While the soulful poetry is intended to woo the beloved, it is also written for an audience to whom a clear succession should be important. A common indication of progression is “the movement from indirect description of the beloved to direct address to her” (367). However, there is an “antithetical tendency” (368) to discontinue this personal address into a more impersonal language at moments of “conflict and stress” (368). An even further progression is formulated with the “inclusion of explicit autobiographical detail,” which “increases intensity and immediacy” (368). In other words, as the sequence intensifies, so do the relationships between poet and beloved, reader and beloved, and therefore poet and reader.

It is thought that the English inherited the Italian structure of the sonnet sequence from Dante and Petrarch, and then tailored it to fit their own intentions (382). Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, in which, “while declaring his love for his mistress, he mocks the Petrarchan standard vocabulary of praise”, is an example that marks English independence from the conventions of Petrarch. [Edmondson and Wells, pp. 15.] The English sonnet sequences “exemplify the Renaissance doctrine of creative imitation as defined by Petrarch” (384).

Petrarch wrote and revised his famous sequence "Canzoniere", or "Song Book", between the years of 1327 and 1374. It comprises 366 poems divided into two parts: 1-263 and 264-366. Petrarch gradually constructed this work, which is derived from the countless drafts and revisions that he made throughout its creation. It is famously known for “shed [ding] light on the generation of English sequence” (360-361). Petrarch’s concern for rearrangements in and alterations to his sonnet sequence suggests that he treated his poems like works of art, in which there is always room for improvement. This idea can also be applied to Shakespeare’s ideals, considering his sonnets 138 and 144 first appeared in 1599 in "The Passionate Pilgrim", and then appeared “much revised and strengthened” (361) in the 1609 publication of "The Sonnets".

There is a triple focus to all sonnet sequences that was originally put forth by the Italian model: “the poet-lover’s passion, the beloved who must be celebrated and won, and the poetry, which unites lover and beloved” (360). They are generally all linked by the metaphor of procreation. Petrarch’s Sonnet 9 of "Canzoniere" familiarizes this metaphor and foreshadows its re-emergence in Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1-17 of "The Sonnets". The principal structuring tool in both the English and Italian sequences is the defined division into two parts. The first part makes a concrete relationship between poet and beloved (the solid Petrarchan relationship), while the second part is shorter and brings about some sort of change in the relationship and the two members of it. In" Canzoniere", this change comes in the form of Laura’s death, and in "The Sonnets", it occurs with Shakespeare’s shift of focus from “idealizing love to sexual use” (369).

For these two sonneteers, ending the sequence proves to be difficult in that the goal of winning the beloved is not achieved. Though normally coveted, the “open-ended structure and sequential movement of the sequence offer no logical stopping place” (375). Also, the fact that the second part of the sequence must act like the couplet of an individual sonnet not only creates an imbalance in the sequence, but it also puts pressure on the poet to make sure the ending has “special force” (375). The three main strategies that English sonneteers end up choosing from are: stopping abruptly "in medias res"; achieving detachment by moving into a different mode, genre, or voice; or providing a narrative resolution. Petrarch opted for the second strategy by moving into a religious mode. Shakespeare also chose the second strategy by moving into a renaissance mode, focusing on projecting his fears and desires onto Cupid. A series of complaints can also be found in the concluding sonnets of Shakespeare’s sequence, which “justify the beloved’s chastity and break the identification with the poet-lover” (381). In both Petrarch’s and Shakespeare’s sequences, the indicated release- whether by death or by time- “releases the lover and the sequence abruptly shifts gears” (374).

Ovidian Influences in the Sonnets

Ovid’s completion of the Metamorphoses ensured that, as he puts it, part of him will survive the death of his own body. [Still in my better part I shall be borne immortal far beyond the lofty stars and I shall have an undying name. Meta. xv. 875-6.] The phrasing at the end of the Metamorphoses, in the account of Hercules’ transfiguration upon Oeta [he gained new vigour in his better part. Meta. ix.269] and the likening of poetic achievement to spiritual transcendence captures some of the most extravagant claims that western culture has made for such achievement.

Ovid was a uniquely important influence of Petrarch. Among the Ovidian texts to which Petrarch was attracted was one of those that Shakespeare fancied, and he gives it almost exactly Shakespeare’s spin. [Alas, if by speaking I renew the burning desire that was born the day I left behind the better part of me, and if love can be cured by the long forgetfulness, who then forces me back to the bait so that my pain may grow? And why do I not first turn to stone in silence. Canzoniere 37.49-56]

Laura, left behind in France, is his better part; even at a great distance she commands his heart and voice. Indeed, in making it impossible for him to be silent, she is his Muse; Petrarch turns out to be the historical link between the newer meaning of Ovid’s theory of his “better half” and its original one. In the speech that Petrarch gives when he receives the laurel crown on the Capitoline Hill he invokes the conclusion to the Metamorphoses straightforwardly as a proof for his thesis about the nobility of poetic fame, and taken together the two citations define one of the most innovative and influential twists that he gives to the tradition of fin’ amors: this poet’s love for his lady is, by design, all but indistinguishable from his literary ambition, his love of the laurel crown. The symbolic focus of that coincidence is the story of Daphne’s transformation into Apollo’s tree. Petrarch made the story in the Metamorphoses the dominant myth of the longest poem in the sequence, Canzoniere 23. This poem is a virtuoso sequence of a half dozen Ovidian myths, from Apollo and Daphne to Actaeon and Diana, offered up as figuration of the poet’s own subjective experience; it has become known as the canzone della metamorfosi, a sustained “lyricization of epic materials,” [Braden, Gordon, and A. B. Taylor. Ovid, Petrarch, and Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.] which effectively rewrites Ovid’s long poem as erotic and professional autobiography.

This incorporation of the Metamorphoses into lyricism has momentous consequences for the following history of Petrarchanism, whereas poets such as Pierre de Ronsard and Barnabe Barnes, used each of the Ovidian myths as a figure for achieved sexual intercourse. Within the lyric sequence, such evocations play against the expectation of female unattainability, which is also one of Petrarch’s legacies, and contribute powerfully to Petrarchanism’s reputation for shameless and often bizarre sensuality.

We find this phrase’s English equivalent twice in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. [“Oh how thy worth with manners may I singe, / When thou art all the better part of me?” (Sonnets 39.1-2), and “My spirit is thine the better part of me” (Sonnets 74.8)] In neither case, however, is the context the same as that of Ovid’s. Shakespeare makes such boasts in the Sonnets, and they owe much to Ovidian precedent; but this particular phrase has migrated into different territory, the lover’s affirmation of a transcendent dependence on the beloved. Ovid never writes this way of Corinna in his Amores, where she is only an occasional longing; it is unmistakably his desire, not her merit that animates the Amores. Shakespeare, however, regards the beloved object highly as the all-inclusive focus. Indeed, justification of the lover’s existence marks the decisive new start for European love poetry in the thirteenth century.

Despite Shakespeare’s interest in and references of Ovid in his Sonnets, the second decade of the seventeenth century brought about a departure from the Ovidian territory that Renaissance sonneteering had cultivated. Shakespeare tended to ban mythology from his Sonnets. Of the few mythological allusions Shakespeare incorporates into the sonnets, seldom are they depicted in the same way Ovid depicts them in his Metamorphoses. In Sonnet 53, Adonis is paired with Helen as an exemplar of human beauty (53.5, 7); Mar’s name appears, though not Venus (55.7); ‘heavie Saturne’ laughs and dances with ‘proud pide Aprill’ (98.2-4); the nightingale is called Philomel (102.7) and the phoenix is mentioned (19.4). In the procreation sonnets, a reference to the myth of Narcissus is clearly intended by Shakespeare. [Oh, I am he! I have felt it, I know now my own image. I burn with love of my own self; I both kindle the flames and suffer them….The very abundance of my riches beggars me. (Meta. 3.463-4, 466)] [But thou contracted to thine owne bright eyes,Feed’st thy lights flame with selfe substaintial fewell, Making a famine where aboundance lies. (Sonnet 1.5-7)]

Moreover, the latter half of the Sonnets depicts less flesh in the form of seduction. In the dark lady poems, the seduction has already succeeded; its consequences [‘Injoyd no sooner but dispised straight (129.5)] are overwhelmingly shame and anger. Desire in the young man is of a different order, intense but also idealized and Platonic in a way which male Petrarchists writing about women often attempt but seldomly achieve. Shakespeare calls his young man ‘sweet boy’ (108.5) and alludes occasionally to ‘rosie lips and cheeks’ (116.9), but is otherwise restrained and abstract.

Petrarch's and Shakespeare's Lovers

Although Petrarch is accredited with perfection of the sonnet, Shakespeare still made changes in sonnet form and composition 200 years after Petrarch's death. While Petrarch’s sonnets focused mainly on one hub, Shakespeare developed many subjects within his themes such as insomnia, slave of love, blame, dishonesty, and sickness. Despite creating complicated plots, Shakespeare also manages to place ulterior motifs among his two lovers, building new poetic form where Petrarch left off.

Petrarch’s sonnets were dedicated solely to Laura. She is thought to be an imaginary figure and a play on the name Laurel, the leaves with which Petrarch was honored for being the poet laureate and the very same honor he longed for in his sonnets as a “Laurel Wreath”. [Huston, Beth. "Paradoxes of Love." Able Muse. 2002. 10 Feb. 2007 ] The Focus of love within Petrarch’s sonnets contains a unique contrast with Shakespeare’s. Petrarch wrote his poems to a beloved from afar. His interactions were based only on his viewing Laura; his love for her was purely invented. Shakespeare on the other hand shared a reciprocal love with both his lovers; the objects of his love were “articulate, active partners.” (Gajowski 21) Shakespeare’s sonnets are divided between his two lovers: sonnets 1-126 for a male, and sonnets 127-152 for a female; the first to a fair youth, and the second to a dark lady. Petrarch’s sonnets in opposition are focused solely on one lover, Laura. Shakespeare copies the female love in Petrarch’s poetry with the beloved youth who is created, cherished, adored, and eternized. After the fair youth, the dark lady brings a completely opposite literary figure into play. The dark lady is both of a different gender and she displays aspects contrary to Laura. One point that Shakespeare made while writing about the dark lady is a satirical comment on Petrarch’s love:

:“My mistresses eyes are nothing like the sun:Coral is far more red than her lips' red”

(Lines one and two of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130)

The dark lady is not shown as beautiful or idolized as Petrarch portrayed his love, Laura (Sedgwick). This idolization analyzed from a stand point of courtly love draws an interesting segue to the death of Laura in Petrarch’s sonnets, which leads to “the sublimation and transformation of desire” (Neely). His adoration changes from an earthly love, Laura, to a love of the Virgin Mary. Petrarch’s obsessive feelings toward Laura fit remarkably well under the title courtly love. This love is a way to explain his erotic desire and spiritual aspiration. Shakespeare, similarly to Petrarch, shows an eroticized love to the fair youth, a love that also fits nicely under pretense of courtly love. Then like with the death of Laura, this switch to a more divine love can be seen in Shakespeare’s last two sonnets which are dedicated to Cupid, the Roman god of love.


*Boyd, William. "Two Loves Have I'" Guardian Unlimited. 6 Feb. 2007 .

*Braden, Gordon, and A. B. Taylor. Ovid, Petrarch, and Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

*Byrd, Katy, and Nathan Harrod. "Shakespeare's Sonnets." 5 Feb. 2007 .

*Dutschke, Dennis. "The Anniversary Poems in Petrarch's Canzoniere." Italica 58 (1981): 83-101. JSTOR. 8 Feb. 2007.

*Evans, Gareth, and Barbara Lloyd Evans. The Shakespeare Companion. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.

*Everett, Glenn. "A Guide to the Sonnet." University of Tennessee. 5 Feb. 2007 .

*Freccero, Carla. "Ovidian Subjectivities in Early Modern Lyric: Identification and Desire in Petrarch and Louise Labé." Ovid and the Renaissance Body (2001): 21-37.

*Gajowski, Evelyn. The Art of Loving. Cranbury: University of Delaware P, 1991. 15-26.

*Huston, Beth. "Paradoxes of Love." Able Muse. 2002. 10 Feb. 2007 .

*McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare. New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin, 1996. 255-259.

*Petrarch, Francis. The Sonnets of Petrarch. Trans. Joseph Auslander. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1931.

*Sedgwick, Eve K. Between Men : English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. 28-48.

*Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, Oxford; New York; Oxford University Press 2004

*Spiller, Michael R. G. The Development of The Sonnet: an Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1992.

*“The Structure of English Renaissance Sonnet Sequence,” Carol Thomas Neely, ELH, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 359-389- JSTOR

*“The Term Sonnet Sequence”, William T. Going, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 62, No. 6. (June, 1947), pp. 400-402- JSTOR

*Turner, James G., ed. Sexuality & Gender in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 138-140.

*Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.


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