‘It’s a Beauteous Evening Calm and Free’ by Wordsworth as a Petrarchan Sonnet

Perfected by fourteenth century Italian poet Petrarch the Italian sonnet is essentially a lyric poem of fourteen iambic pentameter lines. An Italian sonnet is divided into two parts: octave and sestet. The first eight lines of an Italian sonnet are collectively known as an octave, and the rest six lines are known as sestet. The rhyme of the octave is a b, b a, a b, b a. and rhyme of the sestet is c d e, c d e. This strongly established rhyme scheme gives the poem a clear overall structure. 

The two sections namely octave and sestet of a sonnet normally have different tones. One main idea is deposited or established in the octave and it is the task of the sestet to complement or develop it. The first known sonneteers in English Sir Thomas Wyatt and Earl of Surrey used this Italian scheme, as did the later English poets including John Milton, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

‘It is a Beauteous Evening Calm and Free’ by Wordsworth is a typical Petrarchan sonnet which is divided into two units: octave and sestet. The octave has been used to give the picture of a beautiful and tranquil sunset. It opens to elaborate the admiration the poet feels for the evening. The peaceful atmosphere of the evening is compared to the holy calmness of a nun’s praying to God with absolute concentration. The bright sun is sinking down in its tranquility and the calmness of heaven shades over the sea. And amidst all these- the peaceful evening, the sunset, and the roaring of waves of the sea, the poet feels the presence of an eternal Being, God. So here in the octave the poet establishes a close contact between the nature and God.

 IT is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun Breathless with adoration;
the broad sun Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder--everlastingly.

Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
And worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

The sestet opens with the poet’s address to a girl child walking with him. It seems to the poet that the child is untouched by the solemn atmosphere of the evening. But soon he realizes that this indifference to unearthly beauty does not minimize the divinity of the child. The child has a divine nature. She is close to divinity, just like the Holy priest of the Temple in Jerusalem. Thus the sestet brings the whole theme , established in the octave, to a satisfactory end.

The glorification of the childhood is a common theme in Wordsworth’s poetry. Here, he is also doing the same thing. He finds a child quite different from an adult person. A child is truly close to God, but the adult persons can’t understand it. The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is a b, b a, a b, b a, c d e, c e d, which is a slight variation to the petrarchan rhyme.

The poem is also written in iambic pentameter, which is an absolute characteristic of a sonnet. Thus the sonnet ‘It Is…Free’ is an English adaptation of Petrarchan sonnet in which the personal experiences and interests of the poet are vividly expressed.