Comparison of Petrarch's Sonnet 292 of the Canzoniere and Shakespeare's Sonnet 130

By Steven A. Carbone II
2010, Vol. 2 No. 11 | pg. 1/1

Petrarch and Shakespeare are two poets known for their work on the subject of love. While they each approach the subject of their poems through sonnet forms, there are fundamental differences in their style and form, as well as in the way they undergo the discussion of their subjects. Additionally, it is apparent that in “Sonnet 130,” Shakespeare actually satirizes Petrarch’s style and musings as his narrator describes his mistress, whose “eyes are nothing like the sun” (Shakespeare 3: 106). Shakespeare appears to be making light of the metaphor and exaggerated comparison found in Petrarch’s work by offering an English sonnet describing the very un-goddess-like nature of this dark mistress (Davis et al. 3: 104-105). Conversely, Petrarch’s work is rich in imagery, and does not spare a syllable in its glorification and deification of the object of his desires, Laura. As can be seen in “Sonnet 292” from the Canzoniere, the extensive use of metaphor and the idealization of Petrarch’s female subject are characteristic of the Petrarchan sonnet. The first major difference between the two sonnets is the sonnet form used.

Petrarch’s “Sonnet 292” is written in the 14-line Italian sonnet form consisting of an eight-line octave and a six-line sestet. The main characteristic of the Petrarchan sonnet form is its two-part structure. This is achieved by splitting the eight-line octave into two four-line stanzas, or quatrains. Similarly, the sestet is split into two three-line stanzas, or tercets. This form allows for development of two aspects of the theme, broadening the perspective of the piece (Davis et al. 2: 85-87). While some rhyme scheme remains following the translation of the poem from Italian, it is not a true representation of the original sophistication of Petrarch’s work that was vital to the conveyance of his message in the poem (Davis et al. 2: 72). Shakespeare’s 14-line English sonnet form varies in its structure. The Shakespearean sonnet consists of a three-quatrain argument, followed by a two-line, couplet resolution. The form of the English sonnet allows for the development of three perspectives on the theme through the argument, followed by the resolution, which offers either an affirmation or challenge of the preceding quatrains (Davis et al. 3: 85-87). While the forms of these two works may vary, they both succeed in conveying the dramatic situations of the poems.

The dramatic situations found in each of these two poems are markedly different. In Petrarch’s octave, he illustrates all the beautiful qualities his love possesses. The first quatrain is dedicated to her eyes, hands, feet and face, all of which set the narrator’s existence apart from the commonality of everyday life. This listing of her attributes, or blazon, is meant for emphasis, and harkens back to the tradition of courtly love (Davis et al. 2: 72, 87). Quatrain two begins with the lady’s “tumbled mane of uncut gold,” (Petrarch 3: 83) an allusion to the yellow braids of Petrarch’s “sonnet 90.” Petrarch’s narrator goes on to describe his love’s angelic smile, which, together with her golden hair, turns the earth to Paradise. He continues to the end of the octave, indicating that all of these lovely attributes, “have come to dust: no life, no sense. Undone” (Petrarch 3: 83). His love has died, and so have paradise and his exquisitely uncommon existence. The woman, whom Petrarch’s narrator had professed his love and passion for in the previous 291 sonnets of the Canzoniere, was no more. Petrarch’s tercets go on in metaphor to say the narrator has lost his guiding light, and that the “dismasted ship” that is his life, has been “wracked by the storm” of love and loss. He declares, “Let there be no more love songs! The dear spring / of my accustomed art has been drained dry,” (Petrarch 3: 83) indicating that he shall write no more; his inspiration has dried up, been taken away, his lyre dissolved in his flood of tears.

While Petrarch’s story is one of lost love, Shakespeare offers a different perspective in “Sonnet 130.” Shakespeare’s narrator loves his mistress, but describes her in a most peculiar way, which seems to satirize Petrarch’s overtly starry-eyed prose. The dramatic situation found in “Sonnet 130” is that of the narrator describing his lady as less than perfect. It is indicated that her beauty and features pale when compared to those of nature, “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. / I have seen roses damasked, red and white, / But no such roses see I in her cheeks;” (Shakespeare 3: 106).  However, in the resolution couplet of the sonnet, the narrator still treasures her, and his “rare” love for her exists despite all of this. This poem does not comprise any discernable part of a grander plot established by other works of the author, so it is apparent that this poem stands alone, with no precursors leading up to its situation. In his argument, Shakespeare’s narrator supplies imagery that paints an imperfect picture of this mistress. Shakespeare’s language in this sonnet is very grounded and real, in contrast with Petrarch’s, which idealizes his subject and places her on a pedestal. The description of the mistress is stark and seemingly insulting throughout the argument. His style is similar to Petrarch’s, and Shakespeare seems to mirror that same tradition of blazon, comparing his lady’s features to the treasures of nature. Their similarities part, though, in their description of their subjects.

The language used, and the manner in which the subjects are described, in these two works, grant great insight into the attitude of the respective narrators and authors. Petrarch’s narrator is love-struck. His description of himself as a “dismasted ship” would indicate that he had surrendered any and all control where his adoration of this lady was concerned. His focus is entirely on the physicality of her beauty. Petrarch’s narrator speaks in a voice that deifies his subject, placing her upon the same level as an angel at the very least: “the tumbled mane of uncut gold that shone, / that angel smile whose flash made me surmise / the very earth had turned to Paradise,” (Petrarch 3: 83).

In contrast, Shakespeare’s narrative voice is very subdued and matter-of-fact. He flatly, line by line, notes each of his mistress’s characteristics and how they do not rise to the same level of beauty found in his natural comparisons. “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; / If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;” (Shakespeare 3: 106). Shakespeare’s narrator methodically works through the argument using language such as this to mirror Petrarch’s style while lending a dramatically less idealized view of his subject. Until the reader reaches the resolution of “Sonnet 130,” it would not seem that this is a love sonnet at all. It is only at the resolution, when the narrator professes his love for the woman, that we find the speaker seems more concerned with a realistic view of his love. The love is real, and occurs despite the lack of literary flourishes that are characteristic of Petrarch’s work: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare” (Shakespeare 3: 107).

Petrarch appears much more idealistic and lofty in his narrative, making his woman into an angelic goddess, while Shakespeare takes a much more honest, realistic approach, recognizing the beauty a person can have within them, not just aesthetically. At one point in “Sonnet 130,” Shakespeare actually comes right out and states that his lady is not a goddess: “I grant I never saw a goddess go; / My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground” (Shakespeare 3: 107). By offering that his lady treads in a manner that is not goddess-like, it follows that she cannot be a goddess. Petrarch’s attitude is based in the tradition of Courtly Love, in that he seems to possess a “mystical devotion” to his lady. The Courtly Love tradition sets the precedent that love must be treated with respect and obedience, and that the woman is to be elevated (Davis et al. 2: 613-14). In his work, one can see that Petrarch has surrendered himself to the power this woman has over him. In his description of his feelings after his love’s demise, Petrarch’s narrator indicates that his guiding light has been extinguished, “here where the light I steered by gleams no more / for my dismasted ship, wracked by the storm” (Petrarch 3: 83). His reference to the wrecked ship is also a metaphor for his unquestioning devotion to his love and his willingness to relinquish all control. Shakespeare’s narrator expresses his love for the mistress in the resolution, but does not match the Petrarchan extreme that “Sonnet 292” goes to. “Sonnet 130” is a statement of inner beauty, indicating that man does not have to elevate woman to the level of an angel or a goddess to find love, nor does he have to wholly surrender to the power and control of that woman’s beauty. As mentioned previously, Shakespeare presents a realistic case for a man’s love of a whole woman, not just her superficial beauty.

Where the poetry of love is concerned, there certainly could be no better example of differing approaches or attitudes than has been outlined here. While Shakespeare and Petrarch use their works to address the subject of their loves, or in the case of Petrarch, the loss of his love, they do so using differing styles. Petrarch has drawn on the tradition of Capellanus and Courtly Love, elevating his love to the level of a goddess. “Sonnet 292” illustrates this, as well as his unswerving devotion to his love. It also documents the unraveling of his existence following her death. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” makes use of the Petrarchan / Courtly Love feature blazon to Satirize Petrarch’s style, and to offer a more grounded, realistic view of love. Shakespeare’s mistress is described plainly, with beauty or virtues not exceeding those natural things he compares her to, while Petrarch’s Laura is glorified and elevated to the status of an angel. Shakespeare offers a more realistic, honest approach to describing love, but Petrarch is firmly set in the traditions set forth by Capellanus and Courtly Love. While they each succeed in communicating their attitudes and feelings, it is clear that Petrarch and Shakespeare differ in attitude concerning their love of a woman, and how it should be portrayed and addressed in their work.


Davis, Paul, Gary Harrison, David M. Johnson, Patricia Clark Smith, John F. Crawford, Eds. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. 3 Vols. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.

Petrarch, Francesco. “292: Those Eyes I Raved About In ardent Rhyme.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Vol. 3. Paul Davis et al. Eds. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 130.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Vol.3. Paul Davis et al. Eds. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.

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