Courtesy and personal conduct are key in Sir Thomas Wyatt's "Mine Own Jon Poins" and in the Earl of Surrey's "So cruel a prison how could betide. "
What are the main differences between the ways Wyatt and Surrey treat these issues and the way they are treated in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
Wyatt may be best known for bringing the Italian sonnet to England; or for false charges against him when Henry VIII decided to execute Anne Boleyn. The King named several men as lovers, among them Wyatt, unfairly accused and killed with Anne.
Wyatt's writings were linked with Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, as seen in the book entitled, The Works of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder, printed in London by T. Bensley, in 1816. In this book, it is noted that Wyatt counted John Poins as a good friend; his poem takes issue life in at court in London.
In his poem, Wyatt has many concerns, and they relate to "courtesy and personal conduct." In his writing to Poins, he says he is leaving London—returning to the country. (It was not uncommon for people to have a home in London and in the country; among other things, the country provided distance from politics and intrigue at court.)
In his poem, "Mine Own Jon Poins," Wyatt speaks clearly, telling Poins that he cannot remain in London to watch things take place with which he disagrees—and say nothing. Wyatt states that he cannot, e.g., worship the gods of old and turn his back on the Almighty God, silent while others do:
I cannot honour them that sets their part
With Venus and Bacchus all their life long;
Nor hold my peace of them although I smart.
I cannot crouch nor kneel to do so great a wrong,
To worship them, like God on earth alone...
By the poem's end, he explains that he will not remain in a place such as where Christ was betrayed for money, power, etc., as in Rome, but that Wyatt can be judged by his actions in Kent where he innocently writes—if Poins cares to visit.
Nor I am not where Christ is given in prey
For money, poison, and treason at Rome--...
But here I am in Kent and Christendom
Among the Muses where I read and rhyme;
Where if thou list, my Poinz, for to come,
Thou shalt be judge how I do spend my time.
Henry Howard was a good friend of Wyatt's; together they are considered the "fathers of the English sonnet."
While Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it was Surrey who gave them the rhyming meter and the division into quatrains that now characterizes the sonnets variously named English, Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnets.
However, Surry's fate would be no better than Wyatt's—he would be executed because of Henry VIII's paranoia that Howard was involved in a plot to steal the throne—also false charges.
In his poem, "So cruel a prison, how could betide," Howard recalls all of the fun he had with carousing, hunting and various entertainments, as he sits imprisoned, drawing small comfort from his memories as he waits to die. He seems to reflect on the importance of courtesy and personal conduct too late.
Thus I alone, where all my freedom grew,
In prison pine, with bondage and restraint:
And with remembrance of the greater grief,
To banish the less, I find my chief relief.
These are the real experiences of two men. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we read a poem based upon the idealization of a knight committed to "courtesy and personal conduct." Gawain offers courtesy to his hostess, Bertilak's wife, who tempts him; his personal conduct requires that he return what he has received each day to his host, and that he avoids the seductions of his hostess; he finally presents himself for possible death at the Green Knight's hands, as a true knight.