The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

“In mourning wise since daily I increase” is a ballad composed of eight stanzas, with each stanza consisting of two quatrains of generally regular iambic pentameter. Based on a historical incident at the court of the English monarch King Henry VIII, the poem is Sir Thomas Wyatt’s meditation on the execution of five men of the court for their alleged adultery with Queen Anne Boleyn.

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According to Kenneth Muir’s Sir Thomas Wyatt, Life and Letters (1963), the five men addressed in the poem were executed on May 17, 1536, for improper sexual relations with Queen Anne. They were Lord Rochford, the queen’s brother, who was charged with incest; Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, and Sir William Bereton, three court officials charged with adultery with the queen; and Mark Smeaton, a court musician who appears to have confessed under torture and who may have implicated the four others.

The poem is divided into three sections: an opening of two stanzas that establishes the specific situation that has saddened the poet; a central portion of five stanzas in which the executed individuals are directly addressed by the poet, who comments on their virtues and weaknesses; and a concluding single stanza that again returns the poem to consider the general implications of this specific tragedy. Each of the people the poet addresses is given some touch of individuality, which, generally, is the immediate reason to mourn his loss. Rochford had great wit, Norris would be missed by his friends at court, Weston was unmatched “in active things,” and Bereton, of whom the poet knows the least, at least had a good reputation. Only Smeaton seems to have been without individual virtue, but he is to be pitied, for he has climbed above his station and “A rotten twig upon so high a tree/ Hath slipped [his] hold.”

At the time of the executions, Wyatt was himself imprisoned in the Tower of London, perhaps under suspicion of adultery with the queen but more likely as possibly having knowledge of the alleged crimes. It is possible that while in the tower, Wyatt witnessed the deaths of the five men and, on May 19, the execution of Anne herself. It is certain that the impact of the events is registered in his poem. At the same time, however, while this is a poem triggered by a specific historical event, it is also a meditation on the sense of loss and sadness caused by any human death.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

The poetic form for “In mourning wise” is that of the ballad, which usually tells a story but, in this case, presents a situation and comments upon it. The traditional ballad is typically presented in a four-line stanza, rhyming abab. Wyatt combines two of these stanzas into a single eight-line stanza. The ballad’s relatively casual, informal style, which allows the poet to address both the participants in the poem and the reader directly, is especially suitable for the meaning and purpose of “In mourning wise.”

The underlying logical scheme for “In mourning wise” is that of classical rhetoric. Specifically, Wyatt has taken the rhetorical tradition of addressing absent individuals as if they were actually present. In this case, these individuals are the reader, to whom Wyatt speaks in the opening and closing of the poem, and the guilty dead, each of whom he addresses in turn. This sort of formal patterning was a tradition from the classical world, and educated courtiers such as Wyatt and his readers would have been intimately familiar with it. It permits him to go from a specific personal and historic situation (the execution of five men while he himself was imprisoned in the Tower of London) to a larger, more embracing consideration: how the death of any human being deprives the world of unique talents and personalities and so is a cause for sorrow.

Over this logical framework, the poet has fashioned a linguistic surface to express both his meanings and his feelings. Wyatt, who was known among his contemporaries for improving and regularizing the form of English verse, uses a consistent structure for his poem, with the regularity of the rhyme scheme (ababcdcd) matched by the rhythmic pattern of the iambic pentameter lines. Wyatt uses this regularity both to link his work together and as a vehicle to present his narration and description: This is who these men were, and this is why the poet is sad they are gone. Moving beyond that, Wyatt’s steady, methodical form can be seen as imposing a sense of inevitability about the events described in the poem.

The poem is further knit together by its use of repetition, especially the phrase “dead and gone,” which ends the last line of each stanza except the second, where it is only slightly varied as “bewail the death of some be gone.” Since the poem is about a group of executed men, the phrase is tellingly apt, and its repetition should heighten the reader’s sense of a series of executions happening one after the other and leaving each victim, in turn, inexorably “dead and gone.” By the eighth and final stanza, the hammer strokes of the three short words have impressed more than their literal meaning on the reader. In addition to the repeated use of the phrase, its final word, “gone,” is invariably linked by rhyme with either “moan” or “bemoan,” thus driving home the mournful, elegiac tone of the work. No matter how any stanza opens, its end always draws the reader back to a sense of sadness and loss because of the inescapable fact of death. Such simplicity and repetition are important sources of the poem’s powerful impact on the attentive reader.

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