Introduction

(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, resulting in multiple versions of some poems. Although it is likely that Wyatt's poems were widely circulated in the court of Henry VIII, only a few were published in his lifetime. Five poems by Wyatt appeared in the collection of anonymous poems by various hands, The court of Venus, which survives in three fragments that have been dated from around 1538 to around 1563. The first significant publication of Wyatt's work came with the issuing of Songes and Sonettes, Written by the Ryght Honorable Lorde Henry Haward Late Earle of Surrey, and Other in 1557. Also known as Tottel's Miscellany, for its publisher Richard Tottel, this volume contains about one-third of the poems now placed in the Wyatt canon, as well as pieces by Surrey and other poets. The collection was extremely popular and quickly went through multiple editions. It is now regarded as one of the most significant publications of the early sixteenth century; Wyatt's adaptations of Petrarch and other poems in the collection introduced a number of verse forms to English poetry and exerted a profound influence on later writers, including William Shakespeare and Philip Sidney.

Critical Reception

It is clear from Surrey's “Epitaffe” for Wyatt, and the inclusion of his poetry in Tottel's Miscellany—the contents of which were intended to demonstrate the beauty and power of the English language—that the poet was highly esteemed by his contemporaries. Since the publication of Tottel's Miscellany Wyatt's name has routinely been linked with that of Surrey, and their poetry has often been compared—for centuries, to the detriment of Wyatt's verse. Early in the nineteenth century, however, George Frederick Nott demonstrated that Wyatt's poems had been significantly altered by Tottel: lines were rearranged or cut, meters were regularized, and other changes were made. Despite these findings, Nott still preferred Surrey's poetry. It was not until the twentieth century that critical estimations of Wyatt's work started to change and he began to take precedence over his contemporary. Modern scholars have explored a number of aspects of Wyatt's poetry, often by placing it in its historical context. Drawing on contemporary views of womanhood, Marguerite Waller has discussed the concept of women Wyatt expresses in his poetry. Michael Holahan and others have analyzed Wyatt's transformations of Petrarch's poetry to reflect life in Tudor England. Raymond Southall has investigated how Wyatt's poetry reflects life at court, particularly its risks and dangers. Southall has seen in Wyatt's response to the vicissitudes of court life a Stoicism derived from the writings of Seneca, a topic also treated by Joost Daalder. Stephen Greenblatt and Alexandra Halasz have traced the influence of religious as well as political concerns on Wyatt's work. Other scholarship has centered on questions of Wyatt's status as a poetic innovator: while some commentators have stressed the revolutionary quality of his work and its influence on later Renaissance writing, others, including Kenneth Muir and Dennis Kay, have examined the ways in which Wyatt's poetry draws on the work of earlier English writers, such as Geoffrey Chaucer.