Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502
The underlying theme of “In mourning wise” is a sense of loss in the face of the death of human beings. Such death may be through official execution, as in the case of the characters in this poem, but, ultimately, all human death is a cause for solemn reflection. Rochford and the others have been executed, Wyatt reflects, but the death they endure through judicial violence is the fate that all human beings inevitably experience as part of the course of nature. Death is death, the poem implies, and while these men have been justly punished for their crimes, still their deaths and the loss that they bring are an occasion for sorrow.
A second, interlocking theme is that the deaths of Rochford and the others were unnecessary, since they were caused by bad judgment on the part of the condemned or perhaps, the poem suggests, through the conspiracies of the Tudor court. In either event, death has come sooner than it would normally. The underlying theme of the poem refers to the wheel of fortune, a commonplace of English Renaissance literature that carries individuals into prominence, fame, and power only to cast them down into obscurity, shame, and impotence. Such has been the fate of the characters in Wyatt’s poem and such, the poet well knows from personal experience, could be the fate of any attendant of the Tudor dynasty. The ancient biblical adage “trust not in princes” was never more true than at the court of Henry VIII.
Throughout the poem, Wyatt assumes the role of speaker, first to the reader (or perhaps to himself) and then to each of the condemned men in turn. In doing this, he can examine the impact of each man’s particular death upon himself. Some he knows well; others, notably Bereton, he knows less well. Still, the sense of loss seems as keen for the unfamiliar as for the well known. This theme is reinforced by the way that the poem presents it to the reader. Having first announced that he has grown deeper (and perhaps more knowing, given the first line’s underlying play on words) in mourning, Wyatt next examines the cause of his sorrow by addressing each of the executed men and praising them for some virtue or gift that has been undone and lost by their crime. He is careful to make no excuses for them. Smeaton, the court musician and commoner who dared sleep with a queen, is addressed with brutal directness: “thy death thou hast deserved best.” Yet even so, the poet will “moan thee with the rest” because Smeaton too is dead and gone. Indeed, as the final stanza makes clear, it is the loss by death of any individual, just as much as the specific situation of these executions of a few members of court, that evokes the pity and sorrow of the poet and his poem: “Leave sobs therefore, and every Christian heart/ Pray for the souls of those be dead and gone.”
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