An examination of the sonnet from Petrarch to Browning.

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Kunal Shrivastava                                                                    20/05/2003

An examination of the sonnet from Petrarch to Browning.

A sonnet is a poem, which traditionally contains the subject of love. The creator of the sonnet was a man named Francesco Petrarca who was usually referred to as Petrarch. Petrarch wrote many of his sonnets based upon himself, and his lover, Laura. The conventional format of a sonnet contains fourteen lines, and is segregated to illustrate two arguments. Every sonnet takes the conventional format of fourteen lines, although the way the arguments are split up, may be different.  For example, Petrarch and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet both take the format of an octave and a sestet, whereas Shakespeare’s sonnet takes the format of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet. The arguments usually comprise of love juxtaposed against its opposite. For example, love versus hate, and love versus death.


I have chosen to compare three sonnets. I will compare the subject of their sonnet, the form of the sonnet, and the way that they depict their argument in their sonnet. For example, how they have set out the sonnet, and their use of language. I have chosen to compare, Petrarch’s, “XLL,” and Shakespeare’s, “Sonnet 138,” and Barrett Browning’s, “XLIII.”  


The three sonnets that I have selected all contain the subject of love, but do not compose of the same aspect of love. The subject of, “Sonnet XXL,” is about a woman named Laura, with whom the author Francesco Petrarch fell deeply in love with, even though she did not return his affections. Shakespeare’s, “Sonnet 138,” is about the experience of being in love. He writes from a masculine perspective, describing his lover as, “Unchaste, unfaithful, and dishonest.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s, “Sonnet XLIII,” is about the quality of love. She is writing about her present husband, Browning, to whom she fell deeply in love with.


The Petrarchan sonnet is in the form of an octave and a sestet, which explores the persona’s experience of unrequited love. In the octave, Petrarch is searching for his lost lover, Laura. This can be proven in the first line of the sonnet, “A thousand times to make my peace I sought.” The persona describes his deep love for Laura by using descriptive and metaphorical language.  He elevates Laura to a high point by using religious imagery, while he is still below her. “And offer you my heart; but little thought had your proud spirit to look down so low.” This line also tells us that the persona had offered his love to Laura, but she rejected it; she did not return his affections. From the fourth line and onwards, love is described as being imprisoned. “Yet if another would that heart enchain,” is an example of this. He believes that Laura is not accepting his love because she has changing dreams and hopes, which are just imaginary. “She lives in fickle hopes and dreams untrue.” He is also speaking about how any other woman would have hopes and dreams about capturing his heart because it is bound to Laura. In the seventh line of the octave, Petrarch has mentioned about how the persona has things in common with his lover Laura. For example, he hates the things that she hates. “Since I despise all the things that you disdain.”


In the sestet of, “Sonnet XXL,” the subject changes from the search for love, to the journey of love. Petrarch describes the journey of his heart.  He says that his heart will always be with Laura, and with nobody else, even if the persona falls in love with somebody else. It will protect her wherever she goes, “Harbour with you upon its wondering way, nor stand alone, nor go where others call.” This shows the dedicated and committed love coming from the persona. In the final two lines of the sonnet, the speaker is trying to make Laura feel guilty. He does this by involving religious imagery. He puts the blame on her by using words such as sin and souls, by using, “On both our souls this heavy sin will rest.” Then he carries on in the second line to state that it is mostly her fault for not returning his affections when she had the chance, “But most on yours, for you my heart loves best.”


There are three quatrains and a rhyming couplet in Shakespeare’s sonnet 138. Again this sonnet is about love, but the aspect of love is different. Shakespeare is writing about the experience of being in love. This is a traditional theme for sonnets, but which is usually directed towards the younger generation. Shakespeare presents a naïve male lover who describes his female lover as basically unfaithful, unchaste and dishonest.


In the first quatrain of Shakespeare’s sonnet, the persona describes his lover as declaring that she is honest, and then continues in the second line to state that he believes her even though he knows that she lies. There is an opposition in the form of the words and in the meaning of them in line 1 and 2, where they both appear at the end of the first two lines, ‘Truth,’ and, ‘lies.’ Straight away, these two words appeal to us that the whole sonnet is going to be partly about telling the truth and telling lies. The word lies could also mean that the female character could be lying down with someone else, but she is lying about it. “When my love swears…I do believe her.” These two quotes suggest that the persona has made the decision to trust her. His reasons are expressed in lines 3 and 4. He believes her because otherwise she might think that he is a fool not to play the game, she might think of him as uneducated and inexperienced in the game of love.


The argument of honesty and dishonesty continues in the second quatrain of the sonnet. Shakespeare chooses to make it very clear that the female character cannot be telling the truth by using ostensible evidence that he is ageing; “…. My days are past the best.” He also tells us why this persona continues to believe her, “Thus vainly thinking.” He only believes her because he thinks that his thoughts are inaccurate. Because he believes her, and thinks that he is wrong, he proceeds to say, “Simply I credit her lies.” He believes her with ease, ‘simply.’ The end of the second quatrain carries on by repeating what was said in the first quatrain but with different words, about the agreement made between both people, “On both sides thus is simple truth supprest.” Basically, both people are lying in some way.

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In quatrain 3, Shakespeare carries on the argument with two rhetorical questions, which tell us how insecure and uncertain the persona is about his lover being faithful and honest, and also about himself wanting to believe that he is still youthful. The next lines exhibit the relief, “O!” In believing in what appears to true and yet know that it is a lie, and realizing that time is an enemy to lovers. “Seeming trust,” and, “and age in love loves not to have years told.”


In the rhyming couplet, the response to the experience of being an ...

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