Themes and Meanings

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As much as Wyatt’s personae complain about female behavior, his poems often reflect more poignantly on male attitudes and actions. In a promiscuous court such as Henry VIII’s, in which the men and women all seem to indulge in rather loose expression of sexual desires, why is it that men react so vehemently and emotionally, so irrationally, to infidelity, especially given their own participation in and enjoyment of this state of affairs?

In writing about love, a great many poets suggest that behavior in romantic situations has much to do with who lovers imagine their beloveds to be. Such a powerful emotion as love often leads people to create elaborate, imaginative conceptions of others, conceptions that are not usually very truthful or accurate. When a lover discovers that his beloved is not the person he imagined her to be, the consequent disillusionment can lead to bitter reactions. Witness, for example, the disillusionment of the speaker in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 147 (“My love is as a fever, longing still”): “For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,/ Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.” This bitter derision of the beloved seems an echo of the kind of responses of which Wyatt’s speaker complains.

Yet one might ask whether the attitude of Wyatt’s persona is any better. In subtle ways, Wyatt suggests that this man’s manner of dealing with infidelity is also literary—that is, that his manner mimics a popular poetic or proverbial expression that may not accurately reflect the real experience, the actual situation. Although he says he will not call the woman false, he goes on to do just that, and the proverb he picks up to support his own stoic attitude does worse than simply insult the individual woman: It insults all women as innately false.

Reading poetry from a different age and culture presents two fundamental questions: To what extent does the poet’s thinking differ from present-day thinking? To what extent does it differ from that of his contemporaries? Viewing this poem as is done here implies that Wyatt was able to distance himself from the conventional misogyny of his age enough to see male attitudes toward women as the creation of their own false expectations and double standards. The whole body of Wyatt’s love poetry substantiates this conclusion; Wyatt shows himself again and again to be a keen observer of sexual politics among sophisticated courtiers, and of the literary conventions that misled those literate men and women about the identities of others and of themselves.

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