Sir Thomas Wyatt

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 translations, one can see what kinds of changes he made to naturalize and individualize what he derived from his Italian models. It is impossible to determine an exact chronology for his poems, but it seems likely that those sonnet translations that are closest to their originals are earlier than those he adapts more fully to his own form and expression.

There was no equivalent in English of the sonnet form; Wyatt had to discover and invent it. For Petrarch’s hendecasyllabic line, Wyatt devised a normally decasyllabic substitute, probably developed from Chaucerian models. Iambic pentameter was not, as it later was, a prescribed form, and Wyatt’s lines must not be...

(This entire section contains 4195 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

read as incompetent iambics. There are manuscript examples of his revisions away from metrical regularity, showing that the irregularity often criticized as “roughness” was intentional. Wyatt’s line is open to variable stress, which allows for dominance of speech rhythms and expression of nuances of feeling. While Petrarch’s rhyme scheme divided the sonnet between octave in braced rhyme and sestet in alternative rhyme, Wyatt’s three quatrains in braced rhyme allow for his rational progression of thoughts and images. The series of braced rhymes gives him several couplets with which to work as the poem progresses, to reinforce his contrasts and hammer home his feelings. He introduces a concluding couplet, which he employs with great flexibility and variety of effect—unlike Shakespeare, who too often used it lamely as a detached tag.

In several of the courtly love sonnets that Wyatt translates, he sharpens Petrarch’s images and makes their expression more vivid while carefully pursuing an elaborate conceit. “The long love that in my thought doth harbor” explores love as war; Wyatt, who had participated in chivalric tournaments, conveys a vigorous, dramatic atmosphere of action in the field by use of energetic words and rhythmic pressure. “My galley charged with forgetfulness” pursues the conventional conceit of love as a ship in dangerous seas. Again, Wyatt achieves a feeling of energy, of rushing forward, opening with two run-on lines and blurring the Italian’s sharp distinction between octave and sestet. This poem does not actually mention love, allowing wider application to the dangers of political life.

Another probably early translation shows how Wyatt uses courtly love conventions to focus attention more on the sufferer’s state of mind than on the love situation. The original Petrarchan version of the sonnet “I find no peace, and all my war is done” appealed to Wyatt for its antithetical construction, portraying a divided mind; Wyatt’s version shows how intricately he uses form to convey the sense of internal division. An essential aspect of much of his poetry is the “broken-backed” line, deriving from Anglo-Saxon through medieval lyric and still prevalent before metrical regularity became the norm. This line is divided sharply into two segments by a pronounced caesura. Each of the two resulting half-lines, containing two or three stresses, has an integrity related more to speech rhythm than to syllable counts. The divided lines point and balance the antitheses of the lover’s internal division, but his balance is conveyed more intricately than in the original by the weaving together of phrases throughout the octave. The first three half-lines are parallel in structure: “I find,” “I fear,” “I fly.” The first and last lines of the first quatrain are united by parallel sounds and structure: “and all my war is done,” “and all the world I season”; a similar effect parallels the third line of the first quatrain and the second line of the second quatrain: “yet can I not arise,” “yet can I scape no-wise.” The imagery is traditional in the courtly love convention, but the structure dramatizes the tension in a mind whose suffering, itself, rather than the cause of his suffering, is the poem’s focus.

Wyatt uses the conventions of the suffering lover but turns them around in “Was I never yet of your love grieved.” Petrarch’s lover, worn out with sighing, longs for death as a release and plans a beautiful sepulchre with his lady’s name engraved on it; yet if she will be satisfied with his faithful love, he may survive. Wyatt says that he is not prepared to die and have a tomb with an inscription naming the lady as the cause of his demise. Such a tomb, in any case, far from being a monument to her, would be an indictment of her cruelty. Wyatt discards Petrarch’s physical description of the tomb to focus on the lover’s mood. That mood is one of independent cynicism: The lady may choose to accept his love and faith, but if she chooses instead to continue acting out her disdain, she will not succeed, and that will be her own fault. There is no Petrarchan veneration of the lady here. The lover, having exhausted himself trying, has reached the conclusion that the prize is really not worth the chase. Using the couplets formed by the braced rhyme of the quatrains, he produces a powerful stress on “past” in the third line, and increases the tension between the courtly love expectation and his own rebellion against it through the rhyme of “wearied” and “buried”—an association belied by the unexpected “not.”

“Whoso list to hunt”

A sonnet of similar subject and tone, whose subtlety and smoothness show Wyatt’s confidence in having made the form his own, is “Whoso list to hunt.” The Petrarchan sonnet on which this is based has a visionary, dreamlike quality, picturing the lady as a white hind in a beautiful spring landscape disappearing from the poet’s ken because Caesar (presumably God) has set her free (presumably by death). The tone of Wyatt’s version is quite different. The mention of the hind is developed into an extended hunting metaphor. Instead of the solitary lover, he becomes a member of a crowd of hunters (suitors). He has thus introduced a dramatic situation, plunging into it abruptly and colloquially with direct address. The natural description of the original is replaced by the immediate, realistic atmosphere of the hunt, into which Petrarch’s mention of the mind has led him: the pressing rivals, the net, the hot pursuit. His use of rhythm conveys this physical experience, as heavy stresses on the alliterated “Fainting I follow” suggest limping or labored breath, with the poet’s abrupt about-face, the “turn” in the poem, coming in the middle of the sharply divided line. Wyatt attacks the artificiality of the courtly love tradition, remarking that to pursue this lady is “in vain,” as in the preceding sonnet—a waste of effort. Unlike Petrarch’s modest Laura, this lady is wild and spirited. She is inaccessible not because she is called by God but because she has already been claimed by his social superior (it is usually assumed that “Caesar” is Henry VIII, the hind Boleyn). He further strains the convention by seeking reciprocity of affection, as opposed to one-sided worship of an ideal; to the Petrarchan lover, the pursuit, the service, is its own reward.

The structural pattern portrays the stages of the poet’s argument: the first quatrain defining his plight; the second focusing more sharply on his feelings, from which he abruptly breaks; the third explaining why the case is hopeless; and the couplet giving the explanation an epigrammatic and ironic punch. With the awareness that pursuit of a highborn lady was often an essential stepping-stone to court favor, it is not straining interpretation to see in this particular love pursuit—in which idealized description of the lady has yielded to focus on the lover’s feelings—a more general pursuit of fortune and success with the frustrations encountered in that struggle.

Some of Wyatt’s lyrics seem to bear particular relation to his work on foreign models, such as the strambotti of the Italian poet Serafino de Ciminelli. Light in tone, the strambotto is an eight-line poem with six alternate rhymes and a concluding couplet. Examples in Wyatt’s work are “Who hath heard of such cruelty before” and “Alas, madame! for stealing of a kiss?” Two of his finest lyrics which relate closely in mood to his sonnets and in form to his strambotti are “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek” and “It may be good, like it who list.” Both use three seven-line stanzas to portray intellectual or emotional development: A problem stated in the first stanza is reexamined in the third in the light of the second. Both have the rhyme scheme ababbcc.

“They flee from me, that sometime did me seek”

In Wyatt’s most famous poem, “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,” the description of a specific experience may in part function as a figure to express general feelings about good fortune and its loss. This is especially likely if—as is often assumed—the poem refers to Boleyn. Although the situation is a conventional one of courtly love, the setting and experience are real and immediate, the diction that of everyday speech. The dominant image, like that of “Whoso list to hunt,” is of animals, but it is uncertain what animal the poet has in mind: deer, birds, or simply women. The wild and bestial is contrasted with the tame, courtly, and civilized quality suggested by the words “gentle” and “gentleness.” The main rhetorical device is a simple contrast of past with present tense, past joys with present loss. The use of “they” in the first line may point to a sense of desertion by all the speaker’s friends, similar to that expressed in the epigram, “Lux, my fair falcon,” in which an animal image is used in more complex fashion, as an ironic contrast between loyal animals and disloyal men. The men are ultimately seen as even lower on the animal scale than the falcons, as the men are compared to lice leaving a dead body.

The first stanza of “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek” establishes the focal point of the speaker’s mood, his sense of desertion. The remarkable second stanza recalls in minute detail and tingling immediacy a specific experience, in the light of which a new mood, irony, emerges in the third stanza. This final stanza begins with the rhythmic subtlety of abrupt conversational rhythm, the jolting caesura, and the insistence of many stressed monosyllables. In this line, the dream-vision of Petrarchan convention and the erotic dream of Chaucerian romance are banished. Once again the poet’s insistence on reciprocity in affection has been violated, yet he reacts not with vengefulness or even rebellion, but with ironic detachment. He, with his humanity, his gentleness, has kept his part of the bargain. She, however, who once appeared “gentle, tame and meek,” has now reverted to her wild animal nature. “Kindly” may be taken both in the sense of “according to nature” and ironically in its modern sense. The suggestion that he should be served better recalls ironically the courtly love tradition of the man’s service to his lady on her pedestal, and thus Wyatt drives home again his insistence on reciprocity: Should service be given if not deserved? His conclusion is not, as in the courtly love tradition, and as the poem’s opening suggests, one of sentimental agony, but musing, perhaps even amused understatement. One is left with a question: What does one deserve who repays loyalty with disloyalty? However, there remains some sense of the reality and intensity of loss from the vividness of the scene described in the second stanza. Wyatt’s ideal of a reciprocal and permanent love is more of this world than Petrarch’s one-sided idealization, and its existence belies a charge against him of cynicism.

“It may be good, like it who list”

“It may be good, like it who list” opens with a striking colloquial tone in mid-conversation. The debate symbolized by this dramatic situation is an internal one: The poet is uncertain whether to believe signs of friendship or affection in words and looks. He would like to, but having seen so many changes in human favor, fears to commit himself. The form perfectly conveys the thought-movement, with its seesawing rhythm, produced by the broken-backed line, used with effect similar to that in “I find no peace, and all my war is done.” Stanza 1 begins with half-lines strongly set off against each other by caesuras, on either side of which are stressed syllables, so that the movement seems to be first a pressing toward a decision, then a receding from it, a depiction in sound of the mind swinging back and forth between the desire to believe and the impulse to doubt—opposites that the poet cannot reconcile—with a question to reinforce his uncertainty. The second stanza states the doctrine of contrarieties more objectively, yet four lines of it maintain structurally and rhythmically the sensation of vacillation. The final stanza resolves the argument into another question, directed to the imaginary interlocutor, and the poet seems firmly to resolve the argument in the spondaic “Nay sir.” The next line opening, “And yet,” sets off the whole argument again, however, to leave it seesawing still in the concluding broken-backed line—“For dread to fall I stand not fast”—which has served as a refrain in the two preceding stanzas. The paradox is stressed in union by alliteration of opposite-meaning words, “fall” and “fast,” which occupy corresponding positions in their respective half-lines.

The use of a refrain connects this poem with the other main lyrical form for which Wyatt is famous, sometimes called the “ballette.” This form had its origin in popular song, toward which the musical impetus of Henry VIII’s court drew the courtly minds of the time. Wyatt’s ballettes probably had a social function: They may have been composed for musical accompaniment to be sung in company and were certainly circulated privately. They have short stanzas and simple meters, with short lines and often a refrain. Wyatt’s tendency to compression is here at its finest, as he expresses strong and deep emotion in a simple manner and brief compass.

“Such hap as I am happed in”

Wyatt’s use of the refrain is exquisitely subtle and varied. He may, as in “Such hap as I am happed in,” retain for the final line of each stanza the same rhythm and line length but alter the words of the refrain, then echo it at the beginning of the next stanza. By this means the intensity of feeling and the details of the mind’s torture are progressively built up, until the poem comes to rest in its opening words, with the tortured mind drawn taut and caught in a circular trap, with no hope of escape. The poem’s circularity depicts the speaker’s plight.

Wyatt may repeat the same or similar words at the end of each stanza, letting them accumulate meaning and force in each recurrence from the stanza they follow, and progressively from all the preceding stanzas. “My lute awake” explores, with the subtle variations of its refrain, the relationship between the sufferer and his instrument. The first and final stanzas, almost identical, frame the poem, their minor variations exhibiting the effect of the mental progression through the intervening six. The second, third, and fourth stanzas explore the lover’s plight, hinting at the possibility of retribution. The fifth, sixth, and seventh turn the tables and imagine the once-disdainful lady old and deserted, longing but daring not to express her desires (as he, ironically, is able to express his in the present poem). In the second two revenge stanzas, the poet discards the lute altogether and speaks for himself: “I have done” (finished) caring for you; you will suffer “as I have done.” The sense of the opening refrain, “My lute be still, for I have done,” is that the lover is finished with life. When he returns to echo it at the end, the accumulation of meanings makes it plain that he is finished with the lady. Though the last stanza echoes the first verbally, its sounds are brisker. The word “waste” now carries the full sense of time wasted in the love pursuit (similar to “As well as I may spend his time in vain” in “Whoso list to hunt”). The poet has moved from a pathetic opening through an emotional progression to a detached conclusion, a progress like that exhibited in “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek.” The poem has served to delineate the lover’s hurt feelings and, in a way, to cure them.

Wyatt’s satires and psalms explore in their own way his basic problem of insecurity in public and private life. The satires were probably written in a period directly following one of his imprisonments, when he was relegated or had temporarily retired to his home in Kent. There he examines at length, in epistolary form addressed to his closest friends, the contrasts between courtly and country virtues, comparing the simple honesty of the country to the practiced dissimulation of the court.


Wyatt’s own imprisonment and the death of Boleyn and her lovers had introduced a somber gloom, which he explored in shorter poems such as “Who list his wealth and ease retain,” in which he urges sequestration and anonymity as a means of holding onto life and safety. In the satires, he moves forward from this position, working through his disillusion to a contentment derived from interior strengths and virtues. This process is similar to that of the love poems, in which he works from a mood of despair or grief to one of detachment.

The satires are based on the models of Luigi Alamanni, a contemporary Italian poet, whose terza rima Wyatt imitates, and on the satiric moods and techniques of Horace and Juvenal. The first satire especially (“Mine own John Poyntz”) and the other two less overtly employ Wyatt’s favorite antithetical manner, using it not to portray a divided mind but to contrast two lifestyles, public and private. Despite the difficulty of the verse form (there are far fewer available rhymes in English than in Italian), the opening of this poem based on Alamanni’s tenth satire is smooth, colloquial, and ruminative. As Wyatt catalogs the courtly vices, what stings him most, as in the love poetry, is the deceit that leads to a betrayal of friendship, of “gentleness”: “The friendly foe with his double face/ [I cannot] Say he is gentle, and courteous there-withal.” Two series of catalogs, the first of courtly “arts” that he cannot affect—five tercets beginning “I cannot”—and the second of foreign countries where he might be (“I am not . . . Nor am I”) are joyously resolved both rhetorically and metrically in the regular iambic line, “But here I am in Kent and Christendom,” where he invites Poyntz to visit him and share his attractive life of independence, hunting in good weather, reading in bad.

“My mother’s maids, when they did sew and spin”

The second, and perhaps most attractive of the three satires, “My mother’s maids, when they did sew and spin,” again addressed to Poyntz, is the most effective, for instead of the catalog of vices paraded in the other two at some risk of monotony, it uses the Horatian fable of the town mouse and the country mouse to expound a moral. The language is appealingly homely, the approach intimate, and the poem’s directness is assisted—like that of some of the love poems—by direct discourse: “’Peep,’ quod the other, ’sister I am here.’/ ’Peace,’ quod the towny mouse, ’why speakest thou so loud?’” The moral is that people should content themselves with and use well the lot assigned them and, instead of outward reward, seek inward peace. A religious note is introduced here as Wyatt asks of God a punishment for seekers after worldly gain—a punishment that resembles what he imagines for the lady in “My lute awake”: that they shall behold virtue and regret their loss.

Wyatt’s versions of seven psalms were probably written, like his satires, during or after one of his imprisonments. The narrative prologues that introduce them and the conception of them as expressions of penitence are derived from Pietro Aretino’s prose translations into Italian. This framework probably appealed to Wyatt because it places the psalms in the context of David’s love for Bathsheba and the resultant sickness of heart and soul which he strives to cure with the aid of his harp. The verse is powerful and fluid; the rhyme scheme, as in the satires, is terza rima. An examination of Psalm 38 (“O Lord, as I thee have both prayed and pray”) shows how the psalms develop and continue the preoccupations expressed in the love poems and satires. As in the love poems, the focus of attention, the diction, rhetorical devices, and movement of the verse, is on depicting internal conflict, the movement of the suffering and divided mind: “O Lord, thou knowst the inward contemplation/ Of my desire, thou knowst my sighs and plaints,/ Thou knowst the tears of my lamentation.” This might be part of a love lament. So might the following description of agony, where meter and imagery unite to depict a profound emotional crisis: “My heart panteth, my force I feel it quail,/ My sight, mine eyes, my look decays and faints.” Broken-backed lines divided in two reinforce the poet’s desperation as the second half-lines rhythmically duplicate each other. There follows a detailed description of the evils and dangers of courtly life: Friendship is betrayed, “kin unkind” desert him, slander assails him, he is in danger of his life. Like the lover, he fears rejection and seeks—this time with God—the succor of a reciprocal relationship.

The poet of individual consciousness has tested his strength against the courtly love tradition, which, in its lack of reciprocity, fails him and against court manners, which, in their lack of honesty and loyalty, appall him. He thus seeks reciprocity, trust, and affection by turning his “inward contemplation” to God.


Principal Works