Sir Thomas Wyatt was esteemed in his time for all the best qualities associated with the Renaissance courtier: military prowess, grace in art, skill in language, intelligence in council, and loyalty to his sovereign. The court of Henry VIII, himself a poet and musician, was receptive to the literary talents of such a man and capable of nourishing his worldly gifts, but the ways of politics and love were fraught with risks, as Wyatt’s own career shows. It is against the background of this court, with its political and amorous intrigues, the insecurities of favor both in love and in worldly ambitions, that Wyatt’s poetry can best be considered.
Wyatt is known primarily as a poet of love. The conventions of courtly love, deriving from twelfth century Provençal poetry, are the usual basis of his imagery. This tradition concerns the relationship between the great lady and her courtier “servant.” Love is treated variously as sickness, servitude, worship, and war. The lover is in agony, the lady disdainful, her beauties idealized by comparisons with nature. The tradition reached Wyatt through two main sources, Geoffrey Chaucer and Francesco Petrarch, the Italian strain developing more fully the spiritual aspect of courtly love.
Wyatt’s treatment of the tradition he inherited adapts to it the conditions of his own insecure times. He uses the love convention to speak not only of his lack of satisfaction in love but also about his unhappiness at other aspects of ill fortune. Since a direct judgment on contemporary events could have been dangerous to his political career, even to his life, it is likely that Wyatt used the guise of a disappointed lover to interpret the sense of betrayal, the melancholy, and the insecurity inherent in his career. Life and death lay at the king’s whim. Friendship was risky and tenuous, since the adherents of those who fell in favor were in danger themselves. Although Wyatt’s own career was generally successful, he suffered two severe setbacks. From his prison cell, he may have watched Boleyn and her former lovers, his friends and acquaintances—persons once high in fortune and favor—go to the block. Later, his life was endangered by friendship with Cromwell. Such experiences fostered a deep sense of insecurity, which he expresses in several ways: by use of love conventions, in which he explores and comes to terms with the feeling of betrayal; by satire, in which he can compare the dangers and deceptions of court life with the peace of the country; and by seeking God’s support, in his translations of the Psalms. In all his works, even in translations, it is clear that he is doing far more than merely following established forms. He is bringing stanzaic and rhythmic patterns, compression and directness of language, as well as the motif of disappointed love, to bear on the problems of expressing the strong and deep emotions of a sensitive individual, the complexities of a divided mind.
Looking at Wyatt’s...
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