Sir Thomas Wyatt was esteemed in his time for all the best qualities associated with the Renaissance courtier: military prowess, grace in art, skill in language, intelligence in council, and loyalty to his sovereign. The court of Henry VIII, himself a poet and musician, was receptive to the literary talents of such a man and capable of nourishing his worldly gifts, but the ways of politics and love were fraught with risks, as Wyatt’s own career shows. It is against the background of this court, with its political and amorous intrigues, the insecurities of favor both in love and in worldly ambitions, that Wyatt’s poetry can best be considered.
Wyatt is known primarily as a poet of love. The conventions of courtly love, deriving from twelfth century Provençal poetry, are the usual basis of his imagery. This tradition concerns the relationship between the great lady and her courtier “servant.” Love is treated variously as sickness, servitude, worship, and war. The lover is in agony, the lady disdainful, her beauties idealized by comparisons with nature. The tradition reached Wyatt through two main sources, Geoffrey Chaucer and Francesco Petrarch, the Italian strain developing more fully the spiritual aspect of courtly love.
Wyatt’s treatment of the tradition he inherited adapts to it the conditions of his own insecure times. He uses the love convention to speak not only of his lack of satisfaction in love but also about his unhappiness at other aspects of ill fortune. Since a direct judgment on contemporary events could have been dangerous to his political career, even to his life, it is likely that Wyatt used the guise of a disappointed lover to interpret the sense of betrayal, the melancholy, and the insecurity inherent in his career. Life and death lay at the king’s whim. Friendship was risky and tenuous, since the adherents of those who fell in favor were in danger themselves. Although Wyatt’s own career was generally successful, he suffered two severe setbacks. From his prison cell, he may have watched Boleyn and her former lovers, his friends and acquaintances—persons once high in fortune and favor—go to the block. Later, his life was endangered by friendship with Cromwell. Such experiences fostered a deep sense of insecurity, which he expresses in several ways: by use of love conventions, in which he explores and comes to terms with the feeling of betrayal; by satire, in which he can compare the dangers and deceptions of court life with the peace of the country; and by seeking God’s support, in his translations of the Psalms. In all his works, even in translations, it is clear that he is doing far more than merely following established forms. He is bringing stanzaic and rhythmic patterns, compression and directness of language, as well as the motif of disappointed love, to bear on the problems of expressing the strong and deep emotions of a sensitive individual, the complexities of a divided mind.
Looking at Wyatt’s translations, one can see what kinds of changes he made to naturalize and individualize what he derived from his Italian models. It is impossible to determine an exact chronology for his poems, but it seems likely that those sonnet translations that are closest to their originals are earlier than those he adapts more fully to his own form and expression.
There was no equivalent in English of the sonnet form; Wyatt had to discover and invent it. For Petrarch’s hendecasyllabic line, Wyatt devised a normally decasyllabic substitute, probably developed from Chaucerian models. Iambic pentameter was not, as it later was, a prescribed form, and Wyatt’s lines must not be read as incompetent iambics. There are manuscript examples of his revisions away from metrical regularity, showing that the irregularity often criticized as “roughness” was intentional. Wyatt’s line is open to variable stress, which allows for dominance of speech rhythms and expression of nuances of feeling. While Petrarch’s rhyme scheme divided the sonnet between octave in braced rhyme and sestet in alternative rhyme, Wyatt’s three quatrains in braced rhyme allow for his rational progression of thoughts and images. The series of braced rhymes gives him several couplets with which to work as the poem progresses, to reinforce his contrasts and hammer home his feelings. He introduces a concluding couplet, which he employs with great flexibility and variety of effect—unlike Shakespeare, who too often used it lamely as a detached tag.
In several of the courtly love sonnets that Wyatt translates, he sharpens Petrarch’s images and makes their expression more vivid while carefully pursuing an elaborate conceit. “The long love that in my thought doth harbor” explores love as war; Wyatt, who had participated in chivalric tournaments, conveys a vigorous, dramatic atmosphere of action in the field by use of energetic words and rhythmic pressure. “My galley charged with forgetfulness” pursues the conventional conceit of love as a ship in dangerous seas. Again, Wyatt achieves a feeling of energy, of rushing forward, opening with two run-on lines and blurring the Italian’s sharp distinction between octave and sestet. This poem does not actually mention love, allowing wider application to the dangers of political life.
Another probably early translation shows how Wyatt uses courtly love conventions to focus attention more on the sufferer’s state of mind than on the love situation. The original Petrarchan version of the sonnet “I find no peace, and all my war is done” appealed to Wyatt for its antithetical construction, portraying a divided mind; Wyatt’s version shows how intricately he uses form to convey the sense of internal division. An essential aspect of much of his poetry is the “broken-backed” line, deriving from Anglo-Saxon through medieval lyric and still prevalent before metrical regularity became the norm. This line is divided sharply into two segments by a pronounced caesura. Each of the two resulting half-lines, containing two or three stresses, has an integrity related more to speech rhythm than to syllable counts. The divided lines point and balance the antitheses of the lover’s internal division, but his balance is conveyed more intricately than in the original by the weaving together of phrases throughout the octave. The first three half-lines are parallel in structure: “I find,” “I fear,” “I fly.” The first and last lines of the first quatrain are united by parallel sounds and structure: “and all my war is done,” “and all the world I season”; a similar effect parallels the third line of the first quatrain and the second line of the second quatrain: “yet can I not arise,” “yet can I scape no-wise.” The imagery is traditional in the courtly love convention, but the structure dramatizes the tension in a mind whose suffering, itself, rather than the cause of his suffering, is the poem’s focus.
Wyatt uses the conventions of the suffering lover but turns them around in “Was I never yet of your love grieved.” Petrarch’s lover, worn out with sighing, longs for death as a release and plans a beautiful sepulchre with his lady’s name engraved on it; yet if she will be satisfied with his faithful love, he may survive. Wyatt says that he is not prepared to die and have a tomb with an inscription naming the lady as the cause of his demise. Such a tomb, in any case, far from being a monument to her, would be an indictment of her cruelty. Wyatt discards Petrarch’s physical description of the tomb to focus on the lover’s mood. That mood is one of independent cynicism: The lady may choose to accept his love and faith, but if she chooses instead to continue acting out her disdain, she will not succeed, and that will be her own fault. There is no Petrarchan veneration of the lady here. The lover, having exhausted himself trying, has reached the conclusion that the prize is really not worth the chase. Using the couplets formed by the braced rhyme of the quatrains, he produces a powerful stress on “past” in the third line, and increases the tension between the courtly love expectation and his own rebellion against it through the rhyme of “wearied” and “buried”—an association belied by the unexpected “not.”
“Whoso list to hunt”
A sonnet of similar subject and tone, whose subtlety and smoothness show Wyatt’s confidence in having made the form his own, is “Whoso list to hunt.” The Petrarchan sonnet on which this is based has a visionary, dreamlike quality, picturing the lady as a white hind in a beautiful spring landscape disappearing from the poet’s ken because Caesar (presumably God) has set her free (presumably by death). The tone of Wyatt’s version is quite different. The mention of the hind is developed into an extended hunting metaphor. Instead of the solitary lover, he becomes a member of a crowd of hunters (suitors). He has thus introduced a dramatic situation, plunging into it abruptly and colloquially with direct address. The natural description of the original is replaced by the immediate, realistic atmosphere of the hunt, into which Petrarch’s mention of the mind has led him: the pressing rivals, the net, the hot pursuit. His use of rhythm conveys this physical experience, as heavy stresses on the alliterated “Fainting I follow” suggest limping or labored breath, with the poet’s abrupt about-face, the “turn” in the poem, coming in the middle of the sharply divided line. Wyatt attacks the artificiality of the courtly love tradition, remarking that to pursue this lady is “in vain,” as in the preceding sonnet—a waste of effort. Unlike Petrarch’s modest Laura, this lady is wild and spirited. She is inaccessible not because she is called by God but because she has already been claimed by his social superior (it is usually assumed that “Caesar” is Henry VIII, the hind Boleyn). He further strains the convention by seeking reciprocity of affection, as opposed to one-sided worship of an ideal; to the Petrarchan lover, the pursuit, the service, is its own reward.
The structural pattern portrays the stages of the poet’s argument: the first quatrain defining his plight; the second focusing more sharply on his feelings, from which he abruptly...
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