A Guide to Poetry #2: Verse Forms #6: The Petrarchan Sonnet

The Story So Far

1. Foot, Metrics, Prosody and Scansion

1.1 General Overview

1.2 Anglophonic metrics

1.3 Romance languages

1.4 Classical languages

2. Verse Forms

2.1 Sestina

2.2 Villanelle

2.3 Pantoum

2.4 English Sonnet

2.5 Rondelet

The Italian sonnet is, like the English, 14 lines in number. However, it is structured slightly differently. Instead of three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet, it consists of an octave, which describes a problem, and a sestet, which resolves it.

A octave is simply two quatrains, a sestet two tercets (remember the Sestina?).



Here is John Milton’s Sonnet XXIII:


Methought I saw my late espoused Saint

Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,

Whom Jove’s great Son to her glad Husband gave,

Rescu’d from death by force through pale and faint.

Mine as whom washt from spot of child-bed taint,

Purification in the old Law did save,

And such, as yet once more I trust to have

Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,

Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:

Her face was vail’d, yet to my fancied sight,

Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d

So clear, as in no face with more delight.

But O as to embrace me she enclin’d

I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.


The rhyme scheme here is ABBA in the octave and ABAB in the sestina. Since I can’t find many other examples in my library, I’m assuming this is mandatory, and that Milton keeping the rhymes the same is a personal choice, but for this exercise I’ll stick to both either way. Also, let’s keep iambic pentameter in mind.

Milton’s metaphysical problem, that his love has returned from the grave, is actually emotionally preferable to his solution, that he was just dreaming. Hence the last line “[actual] day brought back my [emotional] night.” Bear this in mind.


Let’s give it a go!


Acts facts lacks backs axe smacks blacks hacks Ajax pacts jacks quacks racks shacks wax tax

mind shined rhymed kind find bind timed climbed wined dined hind pined whined vined

shear near


Were you with me, I could perform the acts

With which the night does taunt my lonely mind;

Consumed, like upon your pussy I dined,

With fantasies of rope, with dreams of racks


We’d use (though my imagination lacks

The proper tools, some use I’m sure we’d find).

With coils of shadow, I would tightly bind

Your hands, and on your feet I’d pour hot wax!


Okay, de Sade might have my number here:

To my inexperience I confess

In matters bondage. S&M I fear


Is less your cup of tea than M&S.

And since your house is far, and lust is near

To dull masturbation I must regress.


I had to go through a lot of shit to get a picture this tasteful. I hope you bastards appreciate it.

Laurence Thompson, 16th December 2011


Closing thoughts

Although I prefer the form of the English sonnet (I missed the final couplet), this might be my favourite poem I’ve composed this week. Perhaps it is just my getting used to metre – I found it easier to slip into iambic feet than in my English sonnet. As you can see, I drew up a rhyming bank from which to draw upon before starting the poem.

The poem more or less speaks for itself – the octave describes the problem of being a horny middle class fantasist without your lover being there, and the sestet recommends wanking, because even if she was there she wouldn’t want to get into bondage anyway. In the era of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, this seems humorously fitting. In the final version, I changed the final line to fit the metre better, and to add a caesura:

To dull masturbation I must regress




To masturbation dull, must I regress


This also gives it a more archaic, sonnety feel, which makes it funnier. I like the idea of some Elizabethan or Restoration poet thinking about S&M. It’s also less coarse than, say, John Wilmot, so it doesn’t call him so much to mind and thus retains it’s anachronistic humour.

I’ve also since changed ‘ your’ in the third to last line to ‘our.’ So it seems more like the bondage is a passing whim and not something the narrator is obsessed with. Oh, and, again, I’ve gotten rid of the stanza breaks – that was purely to help me keep my place whilst composing. You can see the little rhyming dictionary I made for myself parallel to writing the poem above, too.

I also changed “pour hot wax” to “drip hot wax,” as it sounds less aggressive and more playful.

I don’t know where “coils of shadow” came from, but I like it. Maybe from this bit from Baudelaire I read yesterday:


As an angel with a beastly eye

I slide toward you noiselessly

and return again to hold you tight

in the shadows of the night


This may also have been an unconscious influence, again from Baudelaire:


Return with your fangs and your claws,

handsome kitten, to my ever-loving heart

while I return to your eyes, where I saw those gems

that won me from the start.


Incidentally, I will be putting up an anthology containing the final drafts of these poems at some point. But next up it’s the hardest sonnet yet: the dreaded Onegin stanza of Pushkin! Don’t miss it.


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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

8 thoughts on “A Guide to Poetry #2: Verse Forms #6: The Petrarchan Sonnet”

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