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Petrarch, Father of the Sonnet:  Lesson 2 

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Royal, military and court costumes of the time of James I. Watercolor, early 17th century

April 2011

Louisa Newlin taught high school English for more than 40 years. She wrote "Nice Guys Finish Dead: Teaching Henry IV, Part I in High School" for the Shakespeare Set Free series. She leads workshops on sonnets for teachers.


Gigi Bradford, former director of the NEA Literature Program and Folger Poetry Series, currently teaches the Folger's "Shakespeare's Sisters" seminar.


Plays/Scenes Covered

Petrarch’s Sonnet CIV in English translation (“I find no peace…”)



What's On for Today and Why

This lesson offers an introduction to Petrarch (1304-1374) and the influence he had on sonnet writing in the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond. It provides a context for understanding how Shakespeare made use of both  “Petrarchan conventions” and undercut them, and how modern writers continue to riff on Petrarch.


This lesson will take 1  forty-five minute class period.

What You Need

A copy of each of the poems for each student.

Some background information on Petrarch (see “Short History of the Sonnet”).


Suggested Homework for Next Lesson:

Pass out copies, double-spaced, of Michael Drayton’s The Parting to be discussed when the class meets again.


CIV, Sonnet by Petrarch
The Parting, Michael Drayton
What To Do

1. Ask students to bring in the lyrics to songs about the pain of love and share them. Share some popular musical renditions if you have the time. Consider together why this is still such a popular subject.


2. Briefly explain who Petrarch and Laura were, and list some characteristic themes of the Petrarchan sonnet: the beloved is ideally beautiful, unattainable, cruel in rejecting the poet’s love; love is a torment, the lover suffers from extreme of feeling; the God of Love is harsh/love is a religion, the eyes are the window to the soul; the poem will immortalize the beloved, etc. (See Introduction).


3. Review the typical relationship of octave and sestet: the octave introduces a situation/poses a question/presents a problem, and the sestet comments on the situation/answers the question/suggests a solution. Between octave and sestet, there is a “volta”—literally, a turn—a shift in tone, often subtle.


4. To illustrate, pass out an English language translation into iambic pentameter of one of Petrarch’s many sonnets; CIV, translated by Thomas Bergin (to aid students, octave, volta and sestet are marked)


5. Divide the class into two groups, one for octave, one for the sestet. Give them 10 minutes to prepare a dramatic reading with exaggerated movements and gestures. Octave group is on one side of the room, sestet is on the other. Students can speak chorally, or break up the lines and parcel them out.


6. The presentations will be funny. Mention that the object is not to ridicule Petrarch, a great artist, but to demonstrate the extremes of feeling he articulated and which served as models for later poets.


7. Ask students to write out the sonnet’s rhyme scheme, which is an entirely regular model of an Italian/Petrarchan sonnet (abababab/cdecde). Discuss briefly.


8. Have students write their reactions to Petrarch in their journals and then share responses.


9. If time permits, have students role-play Petrarch and Laura in contemporary idiom. Or read aloud Billy Collins’ funny “Sonnet”.

How Did It Go?

Did the students reach a more solid understanding of a sonnet’s characteristic shape?

Did they connect the sentiments of the songs they brought in with Petrarch?

Do they understand the Petrarchan conventions and how they continue to influence writing today?

Do they appear interested in the sonnet as a formalized way of expressing feeling?


If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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  Common Core State Standards

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