Petrarch, Father of the Sonnet

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Royal, military and court costumes of the time of James I
Item Title: 
[Royal, military and court costumes of the time of James I] [graphic] / [probably by an Italian artist].
Item Call Number: 
ART Vol. c91 no.8b
Item Creator: 
[s.d.]

Authors: 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, also taught the Folger's "Shakespeare's Sisters" seminar.

Common Core Anchor Standards: R.1, R.5, R.10

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

Lesson Overview

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.

Time: One 45-minute class period

Materials:

 
What To Do

  1. Ask students to bring in 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.
  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; below is CIV, translated by Thomas Bergin:
    • I find no peace and bear no arms for war,
      I fear, I hope; I burn yet shake with chill;
      I fly the Heavens, huddle to earth’s floor,
      Embrace the world, yet all I grasp is nil.
      Love opens not nor shuts my prison’s door
      Nor claims me his nor leaves me to my will;
      He slays me not yet holds me evermore,
      Would have me lifeless yet bound to my ill.
      Eyeless I see and tongueless I protest.
      And long to perish while I succor seek;
      Myself I hate and would another woo.
      I feed on grief, I laugh with sob-racked breast
      And death and life alike to me are bleak:
      My lady, thus I am because of you.
       
  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”. 

Assessment

  • 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?

A great next sonnet: “The Parting” by Michael Drayton. For a guide to teaching Drayton and the English Sonnet, check out our teaching module “The English Sonnet: Michael Drayton.”