Throughout the Renaissance, the European noble was expected to be a creditable poet as well as a capable soldier and diplomat, so much of the best poetry of sixteenth century England was written by members of high-ranking families who contributed to their country’s development. Sir Thomas Wyatt (WI-uht) and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, who inaugurated the golden age of English poetry with their adoption of the verse forms and subject matter of French and Italian works, fall into the long line of courtier poets who wrote sonnets, songs, and satires for their own and their friends’ satisfaction.
Wyatt composed his poems during intervals in a busy, if checkered, career as a public official. The son of Sir Henry Wyatt, a minor noble, he was born in 1503 at Allington Castle in Kent. He went to St. John’s College, Cambridge, when he was thirteen, and was made master of arts in 1520. In that year he married Elizabeth, daughter of Lord Cobham, and began to serve as a court official. In 1526 he traveled to France as a courier for the English ambassador. His mission to Italy in the following year was probably more significant for his poetic development; it gave him an opportunity to become familiar with the works of the Italian poets who greatly influenced his writing, among them Petrarch and Pietro Aretino. During the course of his Italian mission Wyatt was captured by Spanish troops, but he escaped before his ransom was paid. For the next four years he served as marshal of Calais, re turning to England in 1532 as commissioner of the peace in Essex.
Wyatt was imprisoned in May, 1536, probably because of a quarrel with the powerful duke of Suffolk, although there has been considerable speculation about his involvement with Queen Anne Boleyn, who was executed that same year. There is a strong tradition, supported by some evidence, that Anne was Wyatt’s mistress before her marriage to Henry VIII, and several of his poems have been interpreted as references to his love for her. These lines, translated from a sonnet by Petrarch, are often quoted: “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am;/ And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”
Wyatt remained in prison only briefly; then, after a few months at his father’s home, he was appointed ambassador to Spain, faced with the unenviable task of placating the Emperor Charles V, nephew of Henry VIII’s divorced queen, Catherine of Aragon. The last years of Wyatt’s life proved turbulent, marked by the execution of his friend Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s capable minister who fell from royal favor and was convicted of treason in 1540, and by the enmity of Thomas Bonner, bishop of London, who had Wyatt brought to trial on charges of treason in 1541. Wyatt spoke brilliantly in his own defense and received a full pardon. He was made both a member of Parliament and a vice admiral, but before he could enjoy his new positions, he died of a fever contracted as he was traveling to the coast to greet the Spanish ambassador.
Wyatt did not publish any poems during his lifetime because he was a noble; during his era, the publication of one’s own poems was not considered genteel. His poems, however, circulated at court. Some appeared for the first time in print in Richard Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes (1557), also known as Tottel’s Miscellany . The meter in Wyatt’s poetry is sometimes irregular, and Tottel made some revisions before printing the noble’s poems in his collection. Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, also wrote poems that appear...
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inTottel’s Miscellany; the poetry of these contemporaries is often compared. Surrey’s, modern scholars agree, is smoother. Wyatt was nonetheless an important Renaissance poet, an innovator who introduced Petrarchan sonnets and conceits to England and whose verse contains passion. Wyatt wrote primarily of love—love scorned or betrayed—in poems such as “They Flee from Me” and “The Long Love That in My Thought Doth Harbor.” He also wrote an important satirical poem titled “Mine Own John Poins,” an autobiographical piece apparently written in 1536 during his banishment from court.
A poem by Wyatt’s young friend and disciple, the earl of Surrey, pays tribute to his intelligence, his integrity, and his faith: “Wyatt resteth here, that quick could never rest;/ Whose heavenly gifts increaséd by disdain,/ And virtue sank the deeper in his breast;/ Such profit he by envy could obtain.”