The sonnet is considered by many to be the most important lyric genre of the sixteenth century. During the sixteenth century, a variety of sonnet forms were established including the Italian form, in which the sonnet was divided structurally into an octave and a sestet, and the English form, in which the sonnet was divided into three quatrains and a couplet. “Sonnet 61” by Francesco Petrarch and “To Helene” by Pierre de Ronsard convey themes of love and describe how that love is transformed through the passage of time.
Traditionally, Petrarchan sonnets are based around a theme of love, a concept that is evident in “Sonnet 61.” Throughout the sonnet, Petrarch praises his good fortune and feels that he is blessed to have been so lucky to have fallen in love and been able to convey his thoughts and feelings through “the sonnet-sources of [his] fame.” Petrarch proceeds to praise everything about the day he met the object of his affection through blason verse. Petrarch places strong emphasis on the word “blest” and uses the word as an anaphora throughout the sonnet. Not only does Petrarch feel “blest” to have become love struck, and blesses the moment during which he fell in love, but also blesses being trapped by the love he had for another and the pains that accompanied the love. Furthermore, Petrarch feels blessed to hear the “echoes of [his] lady’s name.” These echoes are not limited to the groves and glens, but echo within his thoughts, which are forever about his love.
Structurally, “Sonnet 61” follows an abba abba cdcdee rhyming pattern. The first two quatrains, the octave, describe Petrarch’s initial emotional response upon meeting the unnamed object of his affection. The concluding sestet comments on the everlasting impression that the unnamed subject had on Petrarch and how his love for her may be tumultuous, yet it remains forever.
Like Petrarch, de Ronsard touches upon the theme of love, but instead of writing about the effects of giving into love, de Ronsard comments on how not giving into one’s emotions may impact them in the future, a carpe diem motif. The theme of de Ronsard’s sonnet is very similar to Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to make much of Time” and both poets encourage those whom they are romantically pursuing to give into their emotions and allow themselves to be overcome by love. Like Herrick, de Ronsard is attempting to convince a woman, Helene, to give into his desires by creating a hypothetical version of the future where some of her regrets as an old lady include “yearn[ing] for all that’s lost, [and] repenting your disdain.” De Ronsard also appears to imply that she would be lucky to have him and that she would be a “fool” to pass on his advances. De Ronsard also appears to have a “now or never” mentality and infers that Helene will never know love if she refuses de Ronsard. While de Ronsard concludes his poem with “gather up the roses before they fall away”—very similar to Herrick’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”—which further emphasizes his contention that love is fleeting and not permanent, as Petrarch, in “Sonnet 61,” implies.
“To Helene” is structured differently than a Petrarchan sonnet and follows an abba abba cc dede rhyme scheme. De Ronsard uses the first octave to reflect back on the past and the things that could have been and then proceeds to use the volta to try and convince Helene that the time to many any decisions is now before he is gone and “in the earth, poor ghost without his bones.” De Ronsard’s closing quatrain once again reflects the tone of the introductory octave, yet offers a solution to a life filled with regret, a solution that Helene is hesitant to give in to.
“Sonnet 61” and “To Helene” approach the theme of love from different perspectives. While “Sonnet 61” argues to the eternity of love, “To Helene” relies on carpe diem and the regrets that one may have if they do not seize the opportunity to love. Because of a sonnet’s structural limitations, both Petrarch and de Ronsard are able to convey their feelings of love without being superfluous or excessive.