The best of the court poets who wrote under Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Wyatt stands at a crossroads in English poetry, looking both backward and forward. His fluent native lyrics, perhaps written for musical accompaniment, show direct continuity with medieval popular song and with Chaucerian love imagery. At the same time, he opened the door to the Renaissance in English poetry, importing Italian and French forms and naturalizing them. His most influential innovation was the sonnet. Experimenting with translations from Petrarch’s sonnets, he invented both the Italian and the English or “Shakespearean” sonnet forms. His successors—among them Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, Sir Philip Sidney, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, and William Shakespeare—adopted and refined the sonnet form for their own famous sequences of love poems.
Wyatt introduced virtually every new stanza form that appeared in the sixteenth century. As the first English satirist, he experimented withterza rima, and in his epigrams with ottava rima. He also wrote several rondeaux after French models. His verse translations from the Psalms are the finest in the language, written at a time when English versions of biblical literature were few.
Comments by his contemporaries and the high degree of preservation of his works—he is, for example, by far the largest contributor to Tottel’s Miscellany—testify to his high reputation in his own day. When Wyatt wrote, there were no formal standards of prosody in English. Soon after his death, metrical regularity, which he had helped to establish, prevailed. Unfortunately, Tottel’s editors blurred some of his most powerful effects by regularizing his meter, and his younger and smoother contemporary, Surrey, came to be regarded as a better poet. To critics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Wyatt’s poems, read in the light of their successors, appeared rough and jarring. The last century, with its interest in “organic” rhythm as opposed to fixed rules of meter, and in dramatic compression and conversational immediacy as opposed to formal diction, has reevaluated Wyatt and granted him precedence as the greatest poet of his age, not only as an innovator in form but also as an original explorer of the effect on the individual mind of the insecurities and tensions inherent in love and politics.
Other literary forms
Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Plutarckes Boke of the Quyete of Mynde, a prose translation of Plutarch’s essay on the quiet of mind, which he read in Guillaume Budé’s Latin version, was made at the request of Queen Katherine of Aragon and published in 1528—his only notable work published in his lifetime. His original prose works are interesting in their own right. The state papers contain several fine examples of his correspondence. His most polished prose works are the defense he prepared for his trial in 1541 and his two letters of moral advice to his son. These letters make explicit the moral stance that underlies his poems, especially extolling honesty, which comprises “wisdome, gentlenes, sobrenes, disire to do good, frendlines to get the love of many, and trougth above all the rest.” Wyatt’s prose is distinguished by its clarity and directness, its easy, colloquial use of language, its lively intelligence, and its wit. Often in the diplomatic letters he makes his style more immediate by using direct discourse to report conversations.
Blevins, Jacob. “Catullus, the Early Tudors, and Wyatt’s Deviation from Petrarch.” In Catullan Consciousness and the Early Modern Lyric in England: From Wyatt to Donne. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. Blevins examines how Wyatt adapted the Petrarchan sonnet form, among other topics. Other poets discussed in the book are Catullus and John Donne.
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