Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, are generally considered the inaugurators of the golden age of English poetry in the reign of Elizabeth I. Both men were educated in the humanistic tradition, and they early became familiar with the polished lyric poetry of the Italians and the French. They attempted to demonstrate in their own works that English, too, was a language flexible and elegant enough for court poetry. Skillful experimenters with metrics, they imitated a number of the verse forms popular on the Continent, including the sonnet, ottava rima, terza rima, and the rondeau. Many of the lyrics of both poets are based upon the Petrarchan conventions of the cruel, scornful lady and her forlorn, rejected lover; a number of the sonnets are, in fact, either translations or close adaptations of Petrarch’s works.
While Wyatt and Surrey are most often mentioned as precursors of Elizabethan poetry, students of their works have pointed out that their poetry is, in fact, quite different from that of Sidney, Spenser, and their followers. Typical “golden” poetry makes its effect through rich language and imagery, while in the work of Wyatt and Surrey there is a directness, a simplicity, and an awareness of the natural world that seems closer to Chaucer and his contemporaries than to the Renaissance poets. They form, in a sense, a bridge between the medieval world and the Elizabethan Age.
Surrey was for generations considered the more accomplished poet, but Wyatt, who was almost fifteen years older, is for many modern readers the more rewarding. His meters are less polished than Surrey’s, but the human voice speaks through this very lack of smoothness. The best lines in his characteristically rugged, dramatic style have been compared with the poetry of John Donne. One sonnet begins forcefully:
Farewell Love and all thy laws forever:Thy baited hooks shall tangle me nomore.
Like Donne, Wyatt often conveys a strong sense of personal emotion in his works, even in those which are translated from the Italian and full of the conventional poses of the sonneteer.
In several of the sonnets the power comes from abruptly stated paradoxes. The monosyllables of the following lines are especially effective:
I find no peace, and all my war isdone;I fear and hope; I burn, and freezelike ice;I fly above the wind, yet can I notarise;And nought I have, and all the worldI season.
The personal voice sounds most strongly in Wyatt’s three satires on the materialism and folly of his times. These poems are, like the sonnets, adaptations of Italian and classical models, but they are not often marred by the awkward inversions of some of the shorter poems. The diction of the satires is direct; Wyatt, the disillusioned courtier speaks, emphasizing the ultimate futility of man’s quest for wealth and earthly power.
In “Of the mean and sure estate,” Wyatt uses the beast fable in the manner of medieval poets like Chaucer and Langland, recounting the familiar tale of the poor country mouse who visits her city-dwelling sister, expecting to spend the rest of her days feasting on rich food in comfortable lodgings. She has not, however, reckoned with the presence of the household cat, and after one encounter she returns terrified to her frugal but secure existence at home. Wyatt draws his moral in the concluding passage:
O wretched minds, there is no goldthat mayGrant that you seek, no war, no peace,no strife.No, no, although thy head were hoopedwith gold,Sergeant with mace, with hauberk,sword, nor knifeCannot repulse the care that followshould.Each kind of life hath with him hisdisease.
The satire on court life is still more scathing. Wyatt, protesting passionately the hypocrisy of the society in which he had spent much of his life, gives his reasons for finally withdrawing from it:
I cannot frame my tune to feign,To cloak the truth, for praise withoutdesertOf them that list all vice for to retain.I cannot speak and look like as a saint,Use wiles for wit, and make deceit apleasure;Call craft counsel, for lucre still topaint;I cannot wrest the law to fill the cofferWith innocent blood to feed myself fat,And do most hurt where that most helpI offer.
The third satire is a dialogue between a practical-minded narrator and a lively courtier who “trots still up and down, and never rests, but running day...
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