Sir Thomas Wyatt Introduction

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Wyatt 1503-1542

English poet.

Diplomat and courtier Thomas Wyatt has been hailed as the most important poet of the early Tudor period. A significant poetic innovator, he experimented with meter and continental European verse forms, composed English versions of seven biblical psalms, and, with his translations of Petrarch's sonnets, produced the first sonnets in English. Wyatt lived in times of political and religious upheaval, negotiating the dangers of the court of the mercurial Henry VIII—including imprisonment for purported involvement with Anne Boleyn—yet composing satires and other poems commenting on the precarious life of courtiers. Wyatt's poetry was long considered inferior to that of his younger contemporary, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, whose verse was admired for its smooth regularity and refinement, but modern commentators, praising the originality and complexity of his poems, are nearly unanimous in granting Wyatt precedence.

Biographical Information

Wyatt was born in 1503 at Allington Castle in Kent, England. His father, Sir Henry Wyatt, had risen to a position of power during the reign of Henry VII and continued to hold influential offices during that of Henry VIII. Records of Wyatt's early life are sparse; scholars believe he may have attended Cambridge University. In 1520 he married Elizabeth Brooke, daughter of Thomas, Lord Cobham. Little is known concerning the union—or, indeed, concerning any part of Wyatt's personal life—save that the couple had two children and that in 1526 Wyatt repudiated the marriage, charging his wife with adultery. At the same time Wyatt's career at court was flourishing; he was appointed to several offices and traveled to France and Rome on diplomatic missions. Scholars believe that Wyatt was introduced to Continental scholars and their works while on these travels. In 1527 Queen Catherine of Aragon asked Wyatt to translate into English a work by Plutarch; he complied, but translated one that he preferred to the one specified by the Queen. Wyatt continued to progress in his career, receiving several appointments and enjoying the patronage of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to the king and one of the most powerful men in the country. Sometime around 1536 Wyatt formed a relationship with Elizabeth Darrell, who became his mistress. That same year Wyatt was arrested and held in the Tower of London, presumably because of his connection to Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. Boleyn and five other men were also arrested, charged with adultery, and ultimately executed. Wyatt, however, was never charged and was eventually released and restored to his former position at court. In 1540 Thomas Cromwell was executed; without the protection of his patron, Wyatt was vulnerable to attacks by his political enemies. In 1541 he was arrested on charges of treasonable activity, of which he had been cleared three years earlier. He was pardoned within the year but died in 1542 of a fever while on a mission for the king.

Major Works

Wyatt wrote poetry in many forms, but he is best known for his sonnets, odes, and satires. Many of his pieces derive from earlier Italian and French poems; however, in the course of adaptation, Wyatt often shifted their focus, modifying love poems, for instance, to works reflecting the social and political concerns of his time. While many of Wyatt's poems feature unusual rhyme and rough meter, he is considered the among first writers to explore the power of the English language. His best known works are “Whose list to hunt, I know where is an hind,” “My gallery charged with forgetfulness,” “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” “My lute, awake,” and Certayne psalmes chosen out of the psalter of Dauid, called thee. vii. penytentiall psalmes, drawen into englyshe meter by sir T. Wyat (published 1549; commonly known as the Penitential Psalms ). Scholars have no definitive collection of Wyatt's work. Much of it survived only in various manuscripts,...

(The entire section is 1,133 words.)