"A hand, that taught what might be said in rhyme;
That reft Chaucer the glory of his wit.
A mark, the which (unperfected for time)
Some may approach, but never none shall hit."
—Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey wrote of Sir Thomas Wyatt (Luminarium)
—Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey wrote of Sir Thomas Wyatt (Luminarium)
Often referred to as the “Father of the English Sonnet,” Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder was an amazing poet and writer who brought many innovative changes and ideas to poetry in England during the sixteenth century Renaissance period (Wikipedia). He created the English sonnet and it is still widely recognized and used in today’s literature. Wyatt composed thirty-one sonnets, ten of which are direct translations of the works of Italian Renaissance poet, Petrarch (1911 Classic Encyclopedia).
The experiences Thomas Wyatt had as a member of the Tudor court helped to shape his work tremendously. Wyatt’s frank nature and choice of words in his poetry show a harsh, bitter view of a Tudor era courtier’s life at times; at other times a spurned, disillusioned lover. They also give one a sense of the bitter injustices he experienced during the years he spent abroad as a diplomat serving in various royal courts. His primary preference was the sonnet, a form which he was the first English writer to make use of. He would pave the way for writers such as Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and William Shakespeare (The Norton Anthology of English Literature).
“Perhaps the poem that most brilliantly captures Wyatt’s blend of passion, anger, cynicism, longing, and pain is “They flee from me (The Norton Anthology of English Literature).”” In this particular sonnet, Wyatt uses an almost dream-like quality to describe his affair with a woman, who in her fickleness forgets the kindness he has shown her. He feels forsaken by her, but the sonnet gives no final conclusion for the reader. In the last two lines (or couplet) of this piece, Wyatt ponders bitterly,
“But since that I so kindly am served,
I fain would know what she hath deserved.” (20-21)
He sarcastically uses the word, “kindly” to convey his feeling of mistreatment by his lover. This is not the only sonnet which carries this theme of being wronged.
Another poem written by Sir Thomas, “Who list his wealth and ease retain,” is thought to have been written at the time of his imprisonment in the Tower of London, during which he witnessed Anne Boleyn’s execution (Weir). In the third stanza,
“These bloody days have broken my heart,
My lust, my youth did then depart,” (11-12)
Wyatt describes the gut wrenching sadness he is experiencing. It is as though the last of his youth and innocence are now gone with the execution of his friends and all that is left of him is a hollow shell of a person. The last three words in the last line of every stanza, “circa regna tonat,” translate to “He thunders around thrones (Norton Anthology of English Literature).” One can assume he refers to Henry VIII in this instance, as he was the king of England during that time. The difference in this sonnet, however, is the feeling Sir Thomas gives of political danger and disgrace. He not only feels he lost his youth and innocence, but he also feels stripped of his wealth and safety.
There is also a bit of a cautionary tale in “Who list his wealth and ease retain.” It advises that when one climbs too high within the Tudor court, one cannot see where the danger of falling lies. A person is blind to everything but wealth and ambition in an effort to climb even higher. Wyatt seems to have learned a valuable lesson in his ordeal at the Tower and it is quite evident throughout the theme of this poem (Anne Boleyn Files). This same lesson is a common theme in present day as we see many people rise to fame and fortune, only to throw it all away because they are blinded by their determination and greed.
In one of his freest translations of Petrarchan sonnets, “Whoso list to hunt,” Wyatt writes about his enchantment with a woman; the pursuit of her causing him to grow weary. He decides to give up pursuing her and even goes so far as to warn others of the futility of the “hunt.” It has been rumored for centuries that the muse of this poem was none other than the infamous Anne Boleyn (Ives). The cynical poet comes close to causing the ire of the mercurial King Henry VIII with his love for Anne, if the rumors are to be believed.
Perhaps the most telling evidence that this poem may have indeed been inspired by Anne Boleyn is the final four lines:
“And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about,
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”” (11-14)
The Latin phrase, “Noli me tangere,” translates to “touch me not.” It is easy to then surmise that “Caesar” in this case would be Henry VIII, hence the warning, “King’s property, do not touch” (Fraser). Even in the present time we still see men or women having to give up pursuit of someone they love due to reasons of politics, money, etc. It is no less a frustrating experience now then it was in the sixteenth century.
Wyatt never published any of his poems, and very little of his work appeared in print during his lifetime (Norton Anthology of English Literature). In 1557, Richard Tottel included 97 poems in his book, Songs and Sonnets which he credited to Sir Thomas. Although Wyatt’s poetry had been previously criticized for being poorly crafted and having a rough meter, critics are now regarding his style as more complex, innovative and experimental (Encyclopedia Britannica).
While Sir Thomas Wyatt is widely known as the first person to write the English sonnet, his work also helped to illuminate the scandal, danger, trials and tribulations of court life in the sixteenth century. His common themes of searching for truth, feelings of injustice, betrayal of a lover, and searching for the “quietness of the mind,” are all themes we still find common in literature and music today. His writing still has the power to touch the reader in a way that they can relate to on any level. He was brave enough to plainly illustrate for his audience the treachery of what many viewed as a coveted and glamorous life and was one of the few who didn’t lose his head for his efforts!
The 1911 Classic Encyclopedia. “Sir Thomas Wyatt (Poet).” The 1911 Classic Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Oct. 2006. Web. 23 Nov. 2011.
Encyclopedia Britannica. “Sir Thomas Wyatt.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2011. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.
Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII. Great Britain: George Weidenfield and Nicholson , 1994. Print.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Blackwell , 2005. Print.
Logan, George M, et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006. Print.
Luminarium Encyclopedia Project, and Anniina Jokinen. “Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder.” Luminarium Encyclopedia. Curtis Clark, 1 Sept. 2009. Web. 12 Nov. 2011.
Ridgeway, Claire. The Anne Boleyn Files. MadeGlobal.com, 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.
Weir, Alison. The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn. New York: Ballantine, 2010. Print.
Wikipedia. “Thomas Wyatt (Poet).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.