How might one interpret the poem "If Thou Wilt Mighty Be," by Sir Thomas Wyatt?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt that begins “If thou wilt mighty be” might be interpreted as follows:

Stanza one advises that anyone who wishes to be powerful should reject uncontrolled passion (1-2). He should keep himself free from enslavement to merely sensual desires (2-3). Even if a person controls a vast empire, if he is ruled by desire (especially sensual desire), then he is a slave to passion and not really in control (4-7).

Stanza two suggests that anyone who really wants to be noble and full of lofty thoughts should contemplate his Creator, God, for it is God who fashioned human beings, just as he fashioned the physical universe (8-11).God created human beings with the intention that they should be noble (12). Therefore, the only way for humans to be wretched (miserable, evil, low-minded) is if they allow themselves to be conquered by their own selfish and evil desires:

So that wretched no way thou may be,
Except foul lust and vice do conquer thee.   (13-14)

Stanza three argues that even if a selfish, greedy person possessed a huge amount of gold, that gold would not satisfy him (15-16). Likewise, even if such a person owned a vast amount of immensely valuable jewels, his own greed and desire for more would never be satisfied, nor would such desire allow such a person to enjoy a worthy death.

This poem is typical of many of Wyatt’s writings. Wyatt often uses his poetry to teach standard, Christian, moral lessons. Sometimes he teaches those lessons openly and seriously, as he does here; sometimes he teaches those lessons by using irony and comedy, as in such famous poems as “My Lute, Awake” and “They flee from me.” In many of his works, Wyatt teaches that obedience to God and allegiance to reason are two crucial ways by which humans can lead worthy lives and avoid the misery and pettiness that results from greed and other selfish desires.  In the present poem, Wyatt teaches such lessons quite explicitly.

By giving in to one’s own selfish passions, one behaves like a beast: one suffers from the “foul yoke of sensual bondage” (3). Humans, Wyatt makes clear, were created by God in God’s own image and were meant to behave rationally and nobly. They were given the gift of reason, which should distinguish them from beasts, who lack that gift.



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