How might one interpret the poem "Within My Breast," by Sir Thomas Wyatt?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The double sonnet by Sir Thomas Wyatt that begins “The flaming sighs that boil within my breast” might be interpreted as follows.

The opening lines use conventional imagery, derived from the great Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch, to describe the effects of selfish desire on a male lover. He is full of “flaming sighs” that “boil” within his “breast” (1). In other words, sensual longing torments him. His sighs are evidence of his “heart’s unrest” (3). They reveal the pain and grief he is suffering (4), as do his tears (5-6). Even his flesh looks deadly pale (7). What seems bitter can sometimes seem sweet (8) – an idea that is typical of the emphasis on paradox in much Petrarchan poetry. Anyone who wants to see how cares can trouble a wearied mind should simply look upon the speaker of this poem, although there is no obvious, outward  physical sign of the inward pain he is suffering (8-12). The wound he has suffered is invisible (because it is within his heart) and will never be erased (13-14).

In the second sonnet, the speaker addresses someone else – presumably a male friend (perhaps Sir Francis Bryan, according to some editions) – who has suffered in the same way (1-2). This second person is in a good position to judge how the speaker is feeling (2). The speaker thought it was worthwhile to show his friend how he (the speaker) is feeling, even though the cause of the speaker’s pain is not truly great (18). The speaker’s friend has suffered for far more weighty causes, whereas the speaker merely suffers as the result of “trifling things” (21). Nevertheless, he feels afflicted as with a fever – a fever that makes him suffer in any way it wishes (22-25). The second sonnet concludes with some advice from the speaker: anyone who feels healthy and free (26) should

thank God, and let him not provoke,
To have the like of this my painful stroke.  (27-28)

In other words, no one should want to suffer from the kind of pain from which the speaker now suffers. No one should want to bring such pain upon himself, as (the poem seems to imply) the speaker himself has done.

These two sonnets can be read as descriptions of, and warnings against, the pain that can result from selfish desire, especially when such desire is unreciprocated. The speaker is enduring a kind of emotional hell because he lacks control of his passions.

 

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