Many English poets of the sixteenth century might fairly be described as "Petrarchan poets," because they imitated the themes, forms, and style associated with the fourteenth-century Italian poet Franceso Petrarch. Petrarch's most famous poems, a large collection consisting mostly of sonnets and titled the Rime sparse ("scattered rhymes"), describe a male speaker's infatuation with a beautiful woman named Laura. The speaker's obsession with Laura (or, more specifically, with Laura's physical beauty) lasts for years, but he never succeeds in winning her affection because she realizes that his desire is too much concerned with the flesh and too little concerned with the spirit and soul. Ironically, it is only after the woman dies that the speaker begins to appreciate what was truly and eternally beautiful about her: her soul.
Many of Petrarch's sonnets were first translated into English by Sir Thomas Wyatt and by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. However, not only did both men translate Petrarch; both men also wrote poems of their own that were quite Petrarchan in their thematic concerns. Many of their poems depict men who are obsessed with the bodies of beautiful women. (This kind of obsession, as in Petrarch, simply symbolizes any kind of obsession with the things of this world.) Almost inevitably, the male speakers in these poems are unsuccessful in winning the ladies they pursue, because the ladies are wise enough to realize the shallowness of the males' obsessions.
Each Petrarchan poet of the sixteenth century tended to put his own particular "spin" on the basic story. Thus, in Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella sonnets, Astrophil is obviously a comical fool and is the subject of much good-humored mockery by Sidney. Stella is at one point tempted to give in to Astrophil's pursuit, but she controls her temptation and thus shows that reason is possible in matters of the heart. Ultimately, Astrophil is disappointed and never achieves what he desires.
Edmund Spenser, in his sonnet sequence titled Amoretti, innovates on the basic story by finally showing us a male speaker who moves from mere obsession with a woman's body to true love of a woman's soul. The concluding sonnets of the sequence are very moving depictions of spiritual love, both on the part of the man and on the part of the woman. Each loves God first and foremost, and thus ultimately each loves the other deeply and sincerely. Thus, in sonnet 68 the speaker describes at length Christ's self-sacrificing love of humanity and then turns to the lady and says,
So let us love, dear love, like as we ought,
Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
Spenser is just one of many "Petrarchan" poets who manages to tell the same basic story while putting his own distinctive stamp on that fundamental narrative. Few movements in English literature have been so important or influential, or later aroused such counter-reactions, as the tendency to write "Petrarchan" poetry in the 1500s.