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How to Write an Italian Sonnet - (also known as a Petrarchan sonnet)

Updated on January 31, 2012
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Sarah has more than ten years of experience as a copywriter. She's made a living finding communication problems and solving them with words.

abba, not ABBA
abba, not ABBA

Sooo... What is an Italian Sonnet?

An Italian sonnet, also known as a Petrarchan sonnet, is a form poem written in iambic pentameter with the specific end rhyme scheme of "abba abba cde cde," "abba abba cdc cdc," or "abba abba cdc dcd," which includes a volta after the octave.

If you're just here for a refresher, then you're probably good to go. Check out Milton for some examples. If you're new to poetry, then you're probably saying "WHAT?!"

It's k. It's easier to decipher than you think.

Let's start with the little letters. Putting "abba" in your poem, contrary to popular belief, does not mean that you have to include the lyrics of "Dancing Queen." Instead, it represents a rhyme scheme. It means that your first four lines of iambic pentameter -- your quatrain -- should include two rhyming pairs (not couplets): lines 1 and 4 rhyme and lines 2 and 3 rhyme. Hence, "abba" really means:

a

b

b

a

Does that help? Now, you may have noticed that the form calls for "abba abba" in the beginning, and by now you've probably guessed what that means. Two sets of four lines in the first octave will rhyme: lines 1, 4, 5, and 8 will rhyme with one another, and lines 2, 3, 6, and 7 will rhyme with one another, creating "abba abba," or "Dancing Queen" on repeat.

Petrarchan Form

Line #
Rhyme Option 1
Rhyme Option 2
Rhyme Option 3
1
a
a
a
2
b
b
b
3
b
b
b
4
a
a
a
5
a
a
a
6
b
b
b
7
b
b
b
8
a
a
a
9 (volta)
c
c
c
10
d
d
d
11
e
c
c
12
c
c
d
13
d
d
c
14
e
c
d

NOW, for the second part: the sestet. This sestet consists of two triplets that rhyme in various ways. With the sestet, you have a choice in rhyme scheme. Your options are:

cde cde

cdc cdc

cdc dcd

You're probably catching on by now to what these letters mean, but I'll repeat it to help you remember. Here's the list again with explanations of the letters:

cde cde - This type of sestet contains two rhyming lines that are not couplets. Lines 9 and 12 rhyme, lines 10 and 13 rhyme, and lines 11 and 14 rhyme.

cdc cdc - This type of sestet only contains two end rhymes, but one rhyme repeats itself four times and the other repeats itself twice. Lines 9, 11, 12, and 14 rhyme and lines 10 and 13 rhyme.

cdc dcd - This type of sestet has been added to the Petrarchan sonnet form, and contains two two end rhymes that alternate. Lines 9, 11 and 13 rhyme and lines 10, 12, and 14 rhyme.

BUT WAIT!! There's one more thing to think about with the Italian/Petrarchan sonnet. It's called the volta.

What is the volta?

The volta in an Italian/Petrarchan sonnet is the conceptual turn in the poem, or change. It is usually present in between the octave and the sestet, and is often signaled in line 9. There are several ways to think about the volta, and I'll tell you them and then leave you to it.

A volta**:

  • signifies the development from the problem to the resolution,
  • shows the change from the call to the response,
  • lets the reader know the poem is switching from the question to the answer, or
  • presents the turn from the situation to the comment on that situation.

**In each of these examples, the first underlined word represented the subject matter in the beginning octave (remember "abba abba"?) and the second underlined word represents the subject matter in the ending sestet (the section in which you have a choice between "cde cde," cdc cdc," and "cdc dcd.") The volta is the change from the first underlined word to the second.

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