Sir Thomas Wyatt ca. 1503–1542
English poet and translator.
While Sir Thomas Wyatt is best known for introducing the sonnet to English, his precarious life as a courtier in the court of Henry VIII, which he recorded in verse for an aristocratic audience, is historically eminent. He served as a foreign diplomat on the Continent and was imprisoned repeatedly without charges, yet remained loyal to his king. Although his poetry has been cited for poor craftmanship, twentieth-century scholars have re-evaluated his oevre and found much to admire: experimentation with meter, voice, and forms, both Continental and classical; and satires of the Protestant Reformation and of the centralization of state power are a few such hallmarks. A theme common to Wyatt's work is mutability or betrayal as an undesirable trait for a lover, servant, patron, or king as he sought "quietude of mind" throughout his life. Despite the uncertain fortunes of his career as courtier, his intelligence and strong character helped him to survive and serve his king and kingdom to the end of his life.
The son of Sir Henry Wyatt of Yorkshire and Anne Skinner Wyatt of Surrey, Thomas Wyatt was born in Kent around 1503. Wyatt admired his father, a member of the Privy Council of Henry VII and Henry VIII, and regretted his own lot by comparison at times. It has been difficult to separate Wyatt's private and public life from his poetry. From the start of his career at Henry VIII's court, he quickly succeeded; within the span of only several years Thomas Cromwell, Henry's secretary and counsel on religious matters, had become his patron. Having traveled to France and to Rome, he received a request from Queen Catherine of Aragon to translate Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae in 1527. Wyatt translated The Quiet of Mind instead because its philosophy was significant to Wyatt. Wyatt's private life, filled with discord due to his public position on the king's court and his personal relations which often defied the moral judgement of England at that time, became the center of his poetry. According to most sources, Wyatt attended Cambridge where he met and married Elizabeth Brooke. In 1521, they had a son, but due to Elizabeth's infidelity, their relationship was estranged. In 1536, Wyatt began a lifelong relationship with Elizabeth Darrell, with whom he also had a son. But it is Anne Boleyn, King Henry's second wife, with whom Wyatt is most notoriously associated. The nature of their
relationship has been impossible to ascertain because it is surrounded by rumor and conjecture. Several of Wyatt's poems allude to her, notably the riddle No. 54, that is solved by the word "Anna," and his critically-acclaimed translation of the Petrarchan sonnet, "Whoso list to hunt," No. 11, that centers on the courtly game of chase that ends with one of the king's ladies who is unattainable and in ultimate control of her suitor. Sonnet No. 123, composed during Wyatt's imprisonment at the time of Boleyn's trial, points to their other lovers and results in a strong sense of vulnerability due to the woman's proximity to the king. After the queen's beheading, Wyatt was reinstated and sent as ambassador to Charles V's court to prevent a Catholic alliance from being formed between Spain and France. When this threat diminished, Wyatt returned home. But the execution of his patron Cromwell in 1540 left him open to attack by his enemies at court, and he was once again imprisoned. A brilliantly wrought self-defense won his pardon on the sole condition that he forsake Darrell and accept Elizabeth Brooke as his wife. It was during these later years that Wyatt wrote to his son, encouraging him to follow his path as a poet and a patriot. In 1542, Wyatt died while traveling for king Henry.
All issues of scholarly debate depicted in Wyatt's work have been discussed for centuries. The Court of Venus (1955) includes three fragments of Wyatt's verse that were circulated among members of Henry's court from 1535-39, 1547-49, and 1561-64, the latter being subtitled A Book of Ballets. His most important work by far has been Tottel's Miscellany (1557), that features one-third of Wyatt's canon, focusing on his lyrics and translations of Italian masters, such as Petrarch and Serafino. This miscellany has appeared in at least nine editions over thirty years. A great deal of lattitude was exercised in the recent re-editing of Wyatt's poetry, and although it is uneven in quality, Tottel's represents one of the most important works of the sixteenth century. As such, Wyatt's canon has been revised and collected in several editions since his lifetime, his work currently experiencing a resurrgence in popularity for its depictions of life and society at the time of Henry VIII.
Because Wyatt worked with English models, especially Chaucer, as well as with those from the Continent, his poems exhibit the conventions of amour courtois while at the same time subtly rejecting them. His courtly poetry includes love poems, the sonnets, epigrams and songs; and satiric poems. The context of this work encompasses depictions of love set within the tradtional modes of the English court, and deals with social vying and competition between classes. For example, in his love lyrics, the king's bard becomes the lover who writes, sighs, and sings to win the favor of ladies who might help advance his career. Although his verse serves as commentary on the early Tudor court, Wyatt's three epistolary satires are humanist pieces taken from the Italian tradtion that more effectively criticizes the court than does his poetry. His Penitential Psalms also established Wyatt as a writer of the Protestant Reformation as he based his translations on the repentance of King David, encouraging, according to one view, continual repentance among the Christians of the kingdom.
In the early sixteenth century, the popularity of Chaucer's style of satirical sonnets waned, and many English poets began studying the Continental Renaissance masters. Wyatt's poetry, and most of the popular poetry of the day, reflect this influence. Wyatt's younger contemporary, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was held in greater esteem for his developed use of the Renaissance style, but it is Wyatt's rough meter and his experiments with form that have earned him recognition in this century as the more original and complex of the two poets. Some critics attest that the four-beat measure of the Anglo-Saxon line plays against pentameter, but more recently others have taken an opposing view, that the language at times pushes what is essentially pentameter into a more expressive and rhythmic line. Although one of the major credits to his name is his adaptation of the sonnet, Wyatt has also been faulted for imitating the conceits (extended comparisons) and oxymora (paired opposites) of his Italian forebears. However, his "mistranslations" of Petrarch and other foreign styles continue to hold the attention of critics, for some believe that he molded the texts into an English context or adapted them for his own aims; other scholars believe that he individualized his translations solely for the principles of, and freedom gained within, adaptation itself. Critics do agree, however, that Wyatt's poetry, despite its sometimes overt influence by the eminent writers of preceeding eras, foretells the anti-Petrarchism of the following Elizabethan age in its rejection of the game of love and beloved, It is Wyatt's acceptance and subsequent rejection of traditional styles that made him a forebear of a coming generation of poets. Wyatt's role in the courts, first in Henry's and then in the early Tudor, in addition to his personal work as a representative of the progressive poetry of his time, have ensured him a place in the history of English literature. His innovative poetic form, creative content, and moral and philosophical canon have ranked Wyatt as the fore-most among the poets of his age.
The Works of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder 1816; revised edition, 1965
The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt 2 vols. 1854
The Poems of Sir Thomas Wiat 2 vols. 1913; revised edition, 1964
A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions 1578; revised editions, 1926, 1971, 1972
Tottel's Miscellany (1557-1587) 2 vols. 1929; revised edition, 1965
The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt: A Selection and a Study 1929; revised edition, 1949
Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt 1949; revised edition, 1950
The Court of Venus 1955
Sir Thomas Wyatt and His Circle, Unpublished Poems from the Blage Manuscript 1961
Songs and Sonettes 1966
Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt 1969
Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems 1975
The Canon of Sir Thomas Wyatt's Poetry 1975
Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems 1978; revised edition, 1981
Sir Thomas Wyatt: A Literary Portrait. Selected Poems, with Full Notes, Commentaries, and a Critical Introduction 1986
Other Major Works
Tho. wyatis translatyon of Plutarckes boke, of the quyete of mynde [translator] (essay) 1528
Certayne psalmes chosen out of the psalter of Dauid, called thee. vii. penytentiall psalmes, drawen into englyshe meter by sir T. Wyat [translator] (poetry) 1549
SOURCE: "The Meter of Some Poems of Wyatt," in Studies in Philology Vol. LX, No. 2, April, 1963, pp. 155-65.
[In the following essay, Wyatt's metrics are defended.]
In his pioneer essay on "The Fifteenth-Century Heroic Line,"1 C. S. Lewis demonstrated that much fifteenth-century verse, long thought to be defective iambic pentameter, is really a species of native accentual verse, descended from Beowulf and surviving most obviously in the alliterative verse of the Fourteenth Century. Although he did not specify or analyze any poems, Lewis suggested that Wyatt occasionally wrote in the native meter. In 1946, D. W. Harding defended Wyatt against the...
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SOURCE: "The 'Thing' in Wyatt's Mind," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XVI, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 375-81.
[In the following essay, stability of mind is described as the "thing" Wyatt seeks.]
In an article first published in Essays in Criticism1 and later incorporated in his book The Courtly Maker2 Raymond Southall speaks of 'the generally acknowledged introspection of Wyatt's poetry' as 'an attempt to come to grips with the "thing" within the mind'. He chooses to identify 'the thing' with the 'syght' that Wyatt says 'The bell towre showed' him. That is to say, he believes that Wyatt witnessed Ann Boleyn's execution in the Tower, and...
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SOURCE: "Love and Power in the Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, June, 1968, pp. 145-60.
[In the essay that follows, Wyatt's lyrics are read as literal expressions of his relationship to his lady as well as of his position in the court.]
Wyatt's love lyrics establish a relationship between lover and lady in which love is used as an instrument of power. The conventional relationship between suppliant lover and unattainable lady, portrayed by Petrarch, is here rendered in reverse. The stance of Laura's lover is one of unremitting respect and idealization, taken with good will and a melancholy tinged occasionally with...
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SOURCE: A review of Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3548, Febraury 26, 1970, p. 223.
[In the following review of Muir and Thomson's updated edition of Wyatt's Collected Poems, the reviewer discusses newly discovered poems from the Blage manuscript.]
Since Professor Muir discovered poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the Blage Manuscript at Trinity College, Dublin, ten or a dozen years ago, it has been clear that a thorough revision of the text of all Wyatt's poetry must be undertaken. Until that discovery our knowledge of Wyatt's poetry was mainly derived from two major manuscripts, one of which (Egerton 2711) had...
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SOURCE: "Wyatt's Multi-faceted Presentation of Love," in UNISA English Studies, Vol. IX, No. 4, December, 1971, pp. 5-10.
[In the following essay, various attitudes toward love are explored in Wyatt's poetry.]
In this article, I should like to explore the variety of Wyatt's attitudes to love. Wyatt differs from a number of Elizabethan poets in that his poetry is not centred around the beloved but on the experience of love itself. He portrays mutual and unrequited love, quarrels and reconciliation, contentment and satiety, and the perils of wooing. He presents woman's fickleness as well as her constancy; and the poet himself, as lover, hovers between assurance and...
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SOURCE: "The Speaker in Wyatt's Lyric Poetry," in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. XLI, No. 1, November, 1977, pp. 1-18.
[In the following essay, the speaker in Wyatt's poems is seen as a vehicle for his unique aesthetic sensibility.]
The lyrics of Sir Thomas Wyatt have prompted comment about their role in the development of Tudor poetry ever since 1557. Richard Tottel's appreciation of the "depe witted" Wyatt extended more to Wyatt's demonstration that the English "tong is able … to do as praiseworthely as ye rest" than to his "weightinesse" of style.1 As for poetry, Tottel preferred Surrey. By now, the obligatory comparison between Wyatt and Surrey...
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SOURCE: "Wyatt's 'Owen Thing,'" in The Critical Review, No. 20, 1978, pp. 42-54.
[In the following essay, Wyatt's entire oevre is appraised highly as springing from the poetic centre of a man in the midst of turmoil.]
Fie fro the pres and dwelle with sothefastnesse.
Suffise thine owen thing, thei it be smal.…
Wyatt has by now pretty much consolidated his position as a "great minor poet". The greatness of a few poems, at any rate, is beyond dispute, and since H. A. Mason's account (Humanism and Poetry in the Early Tudor Period) there is no longer any excuse for praising...
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SOURCE: "Sir Thomas Wyatt's Satires and the Humanist Debate Over Court Service," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XI, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 69-79.
[In the following essay, Wyatt's satires are seen as disparate portraits of courtly life.]
Critical studies of Sir Thomas Wyatt's three verse epistles or satires have customarily found in them both a deeply felt indictment of the Tudor court and an equally strong vindication of the quiet, retired life. Typically, all three are said to have been "written in a mood of disillusionment with the life of the court and with the worldly arts necessary for success."1 For Patricia Thomson, these poems need to...
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SOURCE: "Thomas Wyatt's Poetry: The Politics of Love," in Criticism, Vol. XX, No. 4, Fall, 1978, pp. 349-65.
[In the following essay, Kamholtz argues that the interplay between politics and love in Wyatt's poetry expresses the limits of Henry VW's court.]
Wyatt's "He is not ded that sometyme hath a fall" examines various natural consolations for political disgrace.
HE is not ded that sometyme hath a fall.
The Sonne retometh that was vnder the clowd
And when fortune hath spitt oute all her gall
I trust good luck to me shalbe allowd.
For I have sene a shippe into haven fall
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SOURCE: "Time, Indentity, and Context in Wyatt's Verse," in Studies in English Literature, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 5-20.
[In the following essay, Rosen commentds Wyatt's use of narrative time as an artistic reflection of the features of sixteenth-century England.]
In the last fifteen years critics have tended to find in Wyatt's verse an expression of his personality.1 Wyatt has been perceived as working in a tradition or group of traditions—from amour courtois to contemptu mundi—which he gathered and transformed in ways that suggested an original thought, original voice, original personality.2 What that personality...
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SOURCE: "Wyatt's Use of Repetitions and Refrains," in English Literary Renaissance Vol. XII, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 291-300.
[The following essay points to the complex and subtle patterns of repetition and refrain in Wyatt's poetry as proof of his lyrical mastery.]
It is no longer necessary to be defensive in writing about Wyatt. His subordination to Surrey is a thing of the past. The controversies about his competence as a metrist, his dependence on sources, or his lack of specifically poetic interest have all been settled in his favor, and he is now firmly established as one of the first and finest writers of love lyrics in the language. Recently the tendency has...
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SOURCE: "Wyatt, Petrarch, and the Uses of Mistranslation," in College Literature, Vol. XI, No. 3, 1984, pp. 214-22.
[In the following essay, Glaser argues that Wyatt's choice of Petrarchan sonnets realistically reflects the moral beliefs of the late Renaissance period.]
Every student of English literature knows one thing about Sir Thomas Wyatt—he introduced the sonnet into England. Informed of this service, most of us nod approval and move on—but it does not do to move on too quickly. Serious problems surround Wyatt's sonnets, especially in light of their Italian originals. It is hard not to wonder why it was the sonnet Wyatt chose to introduce and why he chose to...
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SOURCE: "Listening to Wyatt," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, pp. 51-54.
[In the following essay, Merwin reevaluates Wyatt's work and life, bestowing credit where he believes it has been lacking.]
What we hear when we read the poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, some four and a half centuries after he wrote them, is a fair example of the ways of that elusive but inescapable figure who haunts the imagination of the Renaissance: Fortuna, that "torne as doeth a ball." There is no way of knowing now what Wyatt's poems sounded like to his contemporaries. His lyrics for the lute must have circulated as songs, and his other poems were read in manuscript, but their...
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SOURCE: "Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Court of Henry VIII: The Courtier's Ambivalence," in The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 113-41.
[In the following essay, Wyatt's conflicting attitudes toward the court are examined as a key to understanding his work.]
In 1548, six years after Sir Thomas Wyatt's death, his good friend, Sir Francis Bryan, published an English translation of the Spaniard Antonio de Guevara's Menosprecio de Corte y Alabanza de Aldea.1 As in the case of Wyatt, so also the most important fact about Bryan is that he spent his life as a courtier in the service of Henry VIII.2 Like...
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