Petrarch's Sonnets

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Today in 203 we’ll get to go over Petrarch’s sonnets, which I’m really excited about. We’ll consider how to “get into” them–most importantly, by identifying 1.) key images or motifs visible in the text, 2.) how the historical context can focus our attention, and 3.) how to paraphrase dense language and convoluted syntax. This last skill will be the focus of the first assignment, to paraphrase two sonnets in a kind of language students are familiar with.

One option for this assignment is to paraphrase Petrarch with the kind of language used to communicate with friends—an informal style that might use slang and idiomatic expression, and so on. Another is to paraphrase Petrarch in a formal, argumentative language—after all, a sonnet does raise a question and then attempt to resolve it, much like an essay does. Still another option is to keep all of Petrarch’s words, but rearrange the syntax in a way that makes sense to contemporary American students.

The goal of the assignment is not only to help us more clearly understand how lyric poetry works and what the Petrarchan tradition is, but also to give additional opportunities to hone skills of close reading and observation.

For the creatives in class, I’m allowing students to alternatively paraphrase  one sonnet as above (instead of two), and create their own sonnet in the Petrarchan tradition for the other. So, today we’ll talk about what makes a Petrarchan sonnet Petrarchan–themes of unrequited love, paradoxical descriptions, elaborate sustained conceits, a specific form and rhyme scheme, and so on.

And I still want to play that Magnetic Fields song as an entree into the Petrarchan conceit–and maybe even make a few converts!

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