Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2312

Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, are generally considered the inaugurators of the golden age of English poetry in the reign of Elizabeth I. Both men were educated in the humanistic tradition, and they early became familiar with the polished lyric poetry of the Italians and the French. They attempted to demonstrate in their own works that English, too, was a language flexible and elegant enough for court poetry. Skillful experimenters with metrics, they imitated a number of the verse forms popular on the Continent, including the sonnet, ottava rima, terza rima, and the rondeau. Many of the lyrics of both poets are based upon the Petrarchan conventions of the cruel, scornful lady and her forlorn, rejected lover; a number of the sonnets are, in fact, either translations or close adaptations of Petrarch’s works.

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While Wyatt and Surrey are most often mentioned as precursors of Elizabethan poetry, students of their works have pointed out that their poetry is, in fact, quite different from that of Sidney, Spenser, and their followers. Typical “golden” poetry makes its effect through rich language and imagery, while in the work of Wyatt and Surrey there is a directness, a simplicity, and an awareness of the natural world that seems closer to Chaucer and his contemporaries than to the Renaissance poets. They form, in a sense, a bridge between the medieval world and the Elizabethan Age.

Surrey was for generations considered the more accomplished poet, but Wyatt, who was almost fifteen years older, is for many modern readers the more rewarding. His meters are less polished than Surrey’s, but the human voice speaks through this very lack of smoothness. The best lines in his characteristically rugged, dramatic style have been compared with the poetry of John Donne. One sonnet begins forcefully:

Farewell Love and all thy laws forever:Thy baited hooks shall tangle me nomore.

Like Donne, Wyatt often conveys a strong sense of personal emotion in his works, even in those which are translated from the Italian and full of the conventional poses of the sonneteer.

In several of the sonnets the power comes from abruptly stated paradoxes. The monosyllables of the following lines are especially effective:

I find no peace, and all my war isdone;I fear and hope; I burn, and freezelike ice;I fly above the wind, yet can I notarise;And nought I have, and all the worldI season.

The personal voice sounds most strongly in Wyatt’s three satires on the materialism and folly of his times. These poems are, like the sonnets, adaptations of Italian and classical models, but they are not often marred by the awkward inversions of some of the shorter poems. The diction of the satires is direct; Wyatt, the disillusioned courtier speaks, emphasizing the ultimate futility of man’s quest for wealth and earthly power.

In “Of the mean and sure estate,” Wyatt uses the beast fable in the manner of medieval poets like Chaucer and Langland, recounting the familiar tale of the poor country mouse who visits her city-dwelling sister, expecting to spend the rest of her days feasting on rich food in comfortable lodgings. She has not, however, reckoned with the presence of the household cat, and after one encounter she returns terrified to her frugal but secure existence at home. Wyatt draws his moral in the concluding passage:

O wretched minds, there is no goldthat mayGrant that you seek, no war, no peace,no strife.No, no, although thy head were hoopedwith gold,Sergeant with mace, with hauberk,sword, nor knifeCannot repulse the care that followshould.Each kind of life hath with him hisdisease.

The satire on court life is still more scathing. Wyatt, protesting passionately the hypocrisy of the society in which he had spent much of his life, gives his reasons for finally withdrawing from it:

I cannot frame my tune to feign,To cloak the truth, for praise withoutdesertOf them that list all vice for to retain.I cannot speak and look like as a saint,Use wiles for wit, and make deceit apleasure;Call craft counsel, for lucre still topaint;I cannot wrest the law to fill the cofferWith innocent blood to feed myself fat,And do most hurt where that most helpI offer.

The third satire is a dialogue between a practical-minded narrator and a lively courtier who “trots still up and down, and never rests, but running day and night.” When the courtier defends this way of life, saying that inactivity would be death to him, the narrator notes that his greatest problem will be finding money for his activities, and he makes several suggestions that show Wyatt’s contempt for the values of his society. The courtier may profitably lie, steal, deceive an old man in his dotage and marry his wealthy widow, however old and ugly she may be; comfort may be found elsewhere. Or he may play Pandarus for the suitors of pretty relatives—for a price. The courtier here interrupts to say that he would not exchange his honest name for any amount of gold, and the narrator, incredulous, predicts the future of all who care for reputation:

Nay, then, farewell! And if thou carefor shame,Content thee then with honest poverty,With free tongue what thee mislikesto blame,And for thy truth sometime adversitie:And there withall this thing I shallthee give—In this world now little prosperity,And coin to keep as water in a sieve.

Wyatt’s greatest poetic gift revealed itself neither in the Petrarchan sonnet nor in the satires, but in the charming lyrics he wrote to be sung before courtly audiences. His brief stanzas and simple refrains have the fluency that many of his sonnets lack, and his temperament seems to have lent itself admirably to both the melancholy complaints and the cynical wit of the forsaken lover. The grace and dignity of such poems as the following can be very moving.

Forget not yet the tried intent,Of such a truth as I have meant,My great travail, so gladly spent,Forget not yet.Forget not yet when first beganThe weary life ye know, since whenThe suit, the service, none can tell,Forget not yet.

In a similar mood is another frequently anthologized lyric, where again the simplicity of the language and even the lack of regularity in the meter convey emotion. The first stanza, which begins “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” pictures birds fluttering about the poet’s chamber, while a second verse transforms one of these wild creatures into a beautiful woman who embraces him. Almost as if he were awaking from deep sleep the poet muses:

It was no dream; I lay broad waking.But all is turned thorough my gentle-ness,Into a strange fashion of forsaking;And I have leave to go, of her goode-ness,And she also to use newfangleness.But since that I so kindely am served,I would fain know what she hath de-served.

Wyatt’s lyrics encompass a variety of meters and tones, and many others could be quoted to illustrate the many ways he treated his favorite theme, the sorrows of unrequited love.

Surrey followed Wyatt in using both Continental and classical models, increasing the flexibility of the language as he mastered various poetic meters. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the succeeding age was the blank verse which he adapted from the Italian for his translation of parts of Vergil’s AENEID; his unrhymed iambic pentameter lines do not have the majestic flow of Marlowe’s or Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry, but in attempting to create a smooth narrative meter Surrey made a real step forward. His version of Book II begins:

They whisted all, with fixed face at-tent,When Prince Aeneas from the royalseatThus gan to speak: O Queen, it isthy willI should renew a woe cannot be told,How that the Greeks did spoil andoverthrowThe Phrygian wealth and wailful realmof Troy:Those ruthfull things that I my selfbeheld,And whereof no small part fell to myshare.

Surrey’s second major contribution was his modification of the Italian sonnet form with its division into octave and sestet and its extremely demanding rhyme scheme. He developed a pattern very close to the three quatrains and couplet of the Shakespearian sonnet. Typical of his treatment of this verse form is a poem that reveals his sensitivity to nature, a quality that distinguishes him from Wyatt:

The soote season that bud and bloomforth bringsWith green hath clad the hill and ekethe vale,The nightingale with feathers new she-sings,The turtle to her make hath told hertale.Summer is come, for every spray nowsprings,The hart hath hung his old head onthe pale,The buck in brake his winter coat heflings,The fishes float with new repairedscale,The adder all her slough away sheslings,The swift swallow pursueth the flyessmall,The busy bee her honey now shemings,—Winter is worn, that was the flowers’bale:And thus I see, among these pleasantthingsEach care decays—and yet my sorrowsprings.

Most of Surrey’s sonnets are typical laments of forsaken lovers, smoother in meter and language than Wyatt’s, but generally less moving.

While modern readers have focused their attention on the sonnets, lyrics, and satires of both Wyatt and Surrey, it must be noted that one of the verse forms Surrey often and Wyatt occasionally used was the jog-trot meter, the poulter’s measure, a twelve-syllable line followed by a fourteen-syllable one. Surrey handled it as skillfully as possible, varying stresses and pauses to keep the singsong rhythm from becoming oppressive, but no matter how well handled, this was not a verse form for great poetry. One of the most appealing examples of Surrey’s work in this meter is “Lady Surrey’s Lament for Her Absent Lord,” written by the poet while he was serving with the English army in Boulogne. He imagines his wife dreaming that he has returned.

Another time, the same doth tell mehe is come,And playing, where I shall him find,with T., his little son.So forth I go apace, to see that life-some sight,And with a kiss, me thinks I say,“Now welcome home, my knight;Welcome, my sweet, alas! the stayof my welfare;Thy presence bringeth forth a trucebetwixt me and my care.”

Two of Surrey’s poems show his particular talents clearly. “Prisoned in Windsor, He Recounteth His Pleasure There Passed,” written in the iambic pentameter quatrains of Wyatt’s satires, is a poignant reminiscence of the happy days of the poet’s youth, spent at Windsor Castle as the companion of the Earl of Richmond, the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII. Surrey draws a vivid picture of the life of the two boys, recalling

The gravel ground, with sleeves tiedon the helm,On foaming horse, with swords andfriendly hearts,With cheer, as though one should an-other whelm,Where we have fought, and chased oftwith darts;With silver drops the mead yet spreadfor ruth,In active games of nimbleness andstrength,Where we did strain, trained withswarms of youth,Our tender limbs that yet shot up inlength.

The poem concludes with Surrey’s lament for his boyhood friend, now dead; his grief at his imprisonment is lessened by the memory of his greater loss.

Another of Surrey’s outstanding works is his elegy “Of the death of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder,” a tribute to the character of a man whom he certainly admired, whether or not he knew him well. Many phrases stand out as particularly apt, characterizing the older poet both as a fine individual and as the pattern of the Renaissance courtier. Surrey’s estimate of Wyatt as a poet is doubtless hyperbolic, but it reveals his sense of debt to him:

A hand that taught what might besaid in rhyme,That reft Chaucer the glory of his wit,A mark the which (unparfited, fortime)Some may approach, but never noneshall hit.

The devoutly Christian conclusion follows the typical elegiac pattern, revealing both grief for personal loss and joy in the elevation of the dead man for all eternity:

But to the heavens that simple soul isfled,Which left with such as covet Christto knowWitness of faith that never shall bedead;Sent for our health, but not receivedso.Thus for our guilt this jewel have welost:The earth, his bones; the heavens pos-sess his ghost.

Both poets composed metrical versions of parts of the Bible. Surrey, in particular, adapted passages to apply to his own desperate situation. Many of his Biblical poems were written while he was in the tower awaiting trial and the execution he gradually realized was inevitable. The recurrent theme of these works is the futility of his lifelong search for happiness in worldly pleasures and success and his present resignation to his fate and reconciliation with God.

Surrey’s many love lyrics show a facility that approaches Wyatt’s in the use of varied stanza forms. His poems in this manner lack some of the emotional power of his predecessor’s work, but they are nonetheless pleasing:

Give place, ye lovers here beforeThat spent your boasts and brags invain,My lady’s beauty passeth moreThe best of yours, I dare well sayn,Than doth the sun the candle-light,Or brightest day the darkest night.

It is difficult to assess the contributions of Wyatt and Surrey to succeeding generations, but they certainly encouraged the vogue for court poetry, and they paved the way for the development of English as a poetic language by men like Sidney and Spenser. However, the two poets should be read today not for their historical significance, but rather for the dignity and the quiet appeal of their own work. While they rank among the near-great English poets rather than among the supreme masters, each has his own strength and lasting appeal.

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