Sir Thomas Wyatt ca. 1503–1542
English poet and translator.
While Sir Thomas Wyatt is best known for introducing the sonnet to English, his precarious life as a courtier in the court of Henry VIII, which he recorded in verse for an aristocratic audience, is historically eminent. He served as a foreign diplomat on the Continent and was imprisoned repeatedly without charges, yet remained loyal to his king. Although his poetry has been cited for poor craftmanship, twentieth-century scholars have re-evaluated his oevre and found much to admire: experimentation with meter, voice, and forms, both Continental and classical; and satires of the Protestant Reformation and of the centralization of state power are a few such hallmarks. A theme common to Wyatt's work is mutability or betrayal as an undesirable trait for a lover, servant, patron, or king as he sought "quietude of mind" throughout his life. Despite the uncertain fortunes of his career as courtier, his intelligence and strong character helped him to survive and serve his king and kingdom to the end of his life.
The son of Sir Henry Wyatt of Yorkshire and Anne Skinner Wyatt of Surrey, Thomas Wyatt was born in Kent around 1503. Wyatt admired his father, a member of the Privy Council of Henry VII and Henry VIII, and regretted his own lot by comparison at times. It has been difficult to separate Wyatt's private and public life from his poetry. From the start of his career at Henry VIII's court, he quickly succeeded; within the span of only several years Thomas Cromwell, Henry's secretary and counsel on religious matters, had become his patron. Having traveled to France and to Rome, he received a request from Queen Catherine of Aragon to translate Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae in 1527. Wyatt translated The Quiet of Mind instead because its philosophy was significant to Wyatt. Wyatt's private life, filled with discord due to his public position on the king's court and his personal relations which often defied the moral judgement of England at that time, became the center of his poetry. According to most sources, Wyatt attended Cambridge where he met and married Elizabeth Brooke. In 1521, they had a son, but due to Elizabeth's infidelity, their relationship was estranged. In 1536, Wyatt began a lifelong relationship with Elizabeth Darrell, with whom he also had a son. But it is Anne Boleyn, King Henry's second wife, with whom Wyatt is most notoriously associated. The nature of their
relationship has been impossible to ascertain because it is surrounded by rumor and conjecture. Several of Wyatt's poems allude to her, notably the riddle No. 54, that is solved by the word "Anna," and his critically-acclaimed translation of the Petrarchan sonnet, "Whoso list to hunt," No. 11, that centers on the courtly game of chase that ends with one of the king's ladies who is unattainable and in ultimate control of her suitor. Sonnet No. 123, composed during Wyatt's imprisonment at the time of Boleyn's trial, points to their other lovers and results in a strong sense of vulnerability due to the woman's proximity to the king. After the queen's beheading, Wyatt was reinstated and sent as ambassador to Charles V's court to prevent a Catholic alliance from being formed between Spain and France. When this threat diminished, Wyatt returned home. But the execution of his patron Cromwell in 1540 left him open to attack by his enemies at court, and he was once again imprisoned. A brilliantly wrought self-defense won his pardon on the sole condition that he forsake Darrell and accept Elizabeth Brooke as his wife. It was during these later years that Wyatt wrote to his son, encouraging him to follow his path as a poet and a patriot. In 1542, Wyatt died while traveling for king Henry.
All issues of scholarly debate depicted in Wyatt's work have been discussed for centuries. The Court of Venus (1955) includes three fragments of Wyatt's verse that were circulated among members of Henry's court from 1535-39, 1547-49, and 1561-64, the latter being subtitled A Book of Ballets. His most important work by far has been Tottel's Miscellany (1557), that features one-third of Wyatt's canon, focusing on his lyrics and translations of Italian masters, such as Petrarch and Serafino. This miscellany has appeared in at least nine editions over thirty years. A great deal of lattitude was exercised in the recent re-editing of Wyatt's poetry, and although it is uneven in quality, Tottel's represents one of the most important works of the sixteenth century. As such, Wyatt's canon has been revised and collected in several editions since his lifetime, his work currently experiencing a resurrgence in popularity for its depictions of life and society at the time of Henry VIII.
Because Wyatt worked with English models, especially Chaucer, as well as with those from the Continent, his poems exhibit the conventions of amour courtois while at the same time subtly rejecting them. His courtly poetry includes love poems, the sonnets, epigrams and songs; and satiric poems. The context of this work encompasses depictions of love set within the tradtional modes of the English court, and deals with social vying and competition between classes. For example, in his love lyrics, the king's bard becomes the lover who writes, sighs, and sings to win the favor of ladies who might help advance his career. Although his verse serves as commentary on the early Tudor court, Wyatt's three epistolary satires are humanist pieces taken from the Italian tradtion that more effectively criticizes the court than does his poetry. His Penitential Psalms also established Wyatt as a writer of the Protestant Reformation as he based his translations on the repentance of King David, encouraging, according to one view, continual repentance among the Christians of the kingdom.
In the early sixteenth century, the popularity of Chaucer's style of satirical sonnets waned, and many English poets began studying the Continental Renaissance masters. Wyatt's poetry, and most of the popular poetry of the day, reflect this influence. Wyatt's younger contemporary, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was held in greater esteem for his developed use of the Renaissance style, but it is Wyatt's rough meter and his experiments with form that have earned him recognition in this century as the more original and complex of the two poets. Some critics attest that the four-beat measure of the Anglo-Saxon line plays against pentameter, but more recently others have taken an opposing view, that the language at times pushes what is essentially pentameter into a more expressive and rhythmic line. Although one of the major credits to his name is his adaptation of the sonnet, Wyatt has also been faulted for imitating the conceits (extended comparisons) and oxymora (paired opposites) of his Italian forebears. However, his "mistranslations" of Petrarch and other foreign styles continue to hold the attention of critics, for some believe that he molded the texts into an English context or adapted them for his own aims; other scholars believe that he individualized his translations solely for the principles of, and freedom gained within, adaptation itself. Critics do agree, however, that Wyatt's poetry, despite its sometimes overt influence by the eminent writers of preceeding eras, foretells the anti-Petrarchism of the following Elizabethan age in its rejection of the game of love and beloved, It is Wyatt's acceptance and subsequent rejection of traditional styles that made him a forebear of a coming generation of poets. Wyatt's role in the courts, first in Henry's and then in the early Tudor, in addition to his personal work as a representative of the progressive poetry of his time, have ensured him a place in the history of English literature. His innovative poetic form, creative content, and moral and philosophical canon have ranked Wyatt as the fore-most among the poets of his age.