Thomas Wyatt Essay - Critical Essays

Wyatt, Thomas


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.

Principal Works

Tho. wyatis translatyon of Plutarckes boke, of the quyete of mynde [translator; from Guillaume Budé's Latin version of Plutarch's De tranquillitate et securitate animi] (essay) 1528

*The court of Venus. With the Pilgrim's Tale. In verse (poetry) c. 1538

Certayne psalmes chosen out of the psalter of Dauid, called thee. vii. penytentiall psalmes, drawen into englyshe meter by sir T. Wyat [translator] (poetry) 1549

Songes and Sonettes, Written by the Ryght Honorable Lorde Henry Haward Late Earle of Surrey, and Other (poetry) 1557

The Works of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder. 2 vols. (poetry) 1816

Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt (poetry) 1949

Sir Thomas Wyatt and His Circle, Unpublished Poems Edited from the Blage Manuscript (poetry) 1961

Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt (poetry) 1969

Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems (poetry) 1975

Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems (poetry) 1978

*This work, a poetry anthology that contains at least five, and possibly more, poems by Wyatt, survives in three fragments. The first fragment was published under the title above around 1538; the second was probably published around 1549 with the subtitle A Boke of Balettes; the third was likely published around 1563 as The courte of Venus. Newly and diligently corrected with many proper ballades newly amended, and also added therunto which haue not before bene imprinted.

†This volume, which is also known as Tottel's Miscellany, for its publisher, Richard Tottel, contains poems by Wyatt as well as Surrey.


Richard Tottel (essay date 1557)

SOURCE: Tottel, Richard. “The Printer to the Reader.” 1557. Reprinted in Wyatt: The Critical Heritage, edited by Patricia Thomson, p. 32. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in Tottel's Songs and Sonettes, written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other, the printer credits Wyatt with helping improve the beauty and power of the English language.]

That to haue wel written in verse, yea & in small parcelles, deserueth great praise, the workes of diuers Latines, Italians, and other, doe proue sufficiently. That our tong is able in that kynde to do as...

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George Frederick Nott (essay date 1816)

SOURCE: Nott, George Frederick. “An Essay on Wyatt's Poems.” 1816. Reprinted in Wyatt: The Critical Heritage, edited by Patricia Thomson, pp. 47-89. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

[In the essay below, originally published in the second volume of Nott's 1815-16 edition of The Works of Henry Howard Earl of Surrey and of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, the critic charges that Wyatt lacked originality and skill with language. In the endnotes following this essay, Nott's original notes appear within parentheses; all others are Thomson's.]

What has been already observed concerning the Earl of Surrey, that though he was eminent for his virtues and personal...

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Kenneth Muir (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Muir, Kenneth. “Wyatt's Poetry.” In Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt, pp. 222-60. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1963.

[In the excerpt below, Muir analyzes the canon of Wyatt's poetry, concluding that his original lyrics are his finest writings.]


Some account of the manuscripts, apart from a recently discovered one, in which Wyatt's poems appear will be found in all recent editions of his poetry. By far the most important is Egerton MS. 2711 (E) in the British Museum, which contains 101 of his lyrics, as well as the satires and the psalms. The early part of the manuscript is in the hand of a scribe,...

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Joost Daalder (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Daalder, Joost. “Wyatt and ‘Liberty’.” Essays in Criticism XXIII, No. 1 (January 1973): 63-7.

[In the following essay, Daalder examines the numerous appearances of the word “liberty” throughout Wyatt's works and maintains that the word is charged with “a profound emotional significance” for the poet and “indicates a psychological freedom from nervous tension.” A postscript to this essay, published in 1985, is reprinted below under that date.]

It is easy, too easy, to think of the word ‘liberty’ in Wyatt's poems as representing merely a state in which the lover is not a ‘thrall’ who is ‘bond’ to a woman he ‘serves’ according...

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Stephen Greenblatt (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Greenblatt, Stephen. “Power, Sexuality, and Inwardness in Wyatt's Poetry.” In Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, pp. 115-56. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Greenblatt analyzes the “intimate relationship between Wyatt's poetry and the forces that shape his identity,” notably politics, religion, and sexuality.]

There is no translation that is not at the same time an interpretation. This conviction, stamped indelibly in the mind by the fact that men went to the stake in the early sixteenth century over the rendering of certain Greek and Latin words into English, lies at the heart of virtually...

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Dennis Kay (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Kay, Dennis. “Wyatt and Chaucer: They Fle From Me Revisited.” The Huntington Library Quarterly 47, No. 3 (Summer 1984): 211-25.

[In the following essay, Kay analyzes the Chaucerian elements in Wyatt's “They flee from me,” in an effort to understand the effect of the poem on its original audience.]

Wyatt's poems, as Alastair Fowler has observed, are “so rooted in their society that their survival is incomplete”: many of the characteristic qualities of the world from which they sprang are, inevitably, lost beyond hope of recovery.1 To read his poems intelligently is to realize that the past, or at least the early Tudor court, is a...

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Joost Daalder (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Daalder, Joost. “Wyatt and ‘Liberty’: A Postscript.” Essays in Criticism XXXV, No. 4 (October 1985): 330-36.

[In the essay below, Daalder explores the influence of Seneca on Wyatt, arguing that “Wyatt is the first major Senecan among Renaissance writers in England.” The first part of this essay, which first appeared in 1973, is reprinted above.]

In 1973, I argued in these pages1 that the word ‘liberty’ in Wyatt

… indicates a psychological freedom from nervous tension which I believe he saw as part of the quietude of mind, security and satisfaction which he so consistently and insistently longed...

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Alexandra Halasz (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Halasz, Alexandra. “Wyatt's David.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30, No. 3 (Fall 1988): 320-44.

[In the essay below, Halasz examines the importance of political and religious concerns in the Paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms.]

          Era intagliato lì nel marmo stesso
lo carro e' buoi traendo l'arca santa
per che si teme officio non commesso.

(Purgatorio 10.55-57)

Sir Thomas Wyatt's Paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms consists of the seven penitential psalms set into a narrative drawn from the biblical story of David. In a sonnet inserted as a preface to the Paraphrase, Henry Howard,...

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Raymond Southall (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Southall, Raymond. “‘Love, Fortune and my mind’: the Stoicism of Wyatt.” Essays in Criticism XXXIX, No. 1 (January 1989): 18-28.

[In the essay which follows, Southall explores how the precarious life at court influenced Wyatt's poetry.]

Writing in these pages nearly twenty-five years ago, I argued against D. W. Harding's suggestion that Wyatt's poetry was an unconscious reflexion of his insecurity as courtier and diplomat and Patricia Thomson's opinion that it was arrogant and cynical.1 Both of these views, it seemed to me, were likely to detract from the achievement of someone who was ‘coming to be seen as the most important figure in...

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Marguerite Waller (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Waller, Marguerite. “The Empire's New Clothes: Refashioning the Renaissance.” In Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism, edited by Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley, pp. 160-83. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Waller argues that in “Whoso list to hunt” “male selfhood” is achieved through the “denigration and exclusion” of women.]


Recently, at the University of California, San Diego, where I had been visiting, two “new historicist” Renaissance scholars spoke on two successive days. The first day...

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Jan Lawson Hinely (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Hinely, Jan Lawson. “‘Freedom through Bondage’: Wyatt's Appropriation of the Penitential Psalms of David.” In The Work of Dissimilitude: Essays from the Sixth Citadel Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Literature, edited by David G. Allen and Robert A. White, pp. 148-65. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

[In the excerpt below, Hinely places Wyatt's psalms at the center of the canon of his works and explores their thematic relation to his secular lyrics.]

Critics in general, perhaps discouraged by Tillyard's comment that they are “academic exercises, penitential not merely in matter but to those whose task it is to read...

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Michael Holahan (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Holahan, Michael. “Wyatt, the Heart's Forest, and the Ancient Savings.” English Literary Renaissance 23, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 46-80.

[In the following essay, Holahan argues that Wyatt's translations of Petrarch's works altered them from private love poems to public declarations of allegiance.]

My Lord, I see I must be your homager and hold land of your gift; but do you know the manner of doing homage in law? Always it is with a saving of his faith to the King and his other lords; and therefore, my Lord, I can be no more yours than I was, and it must be with the ancient savings.

—Francis Bacon to the...

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Christopher Z. Hobson (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Hobson, Christopher Z. “Country Mouse and Towny Mouse: Truth in Wyatt.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 39, No. 3 (Fall 1997): 230-58.

[In the essay below, Hobson contends that Wyatt employed concealment and evasion in his poetry as necessary means to present difficult truths.]

Truth is a crucial term in the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt. The word and its derivatives, with closely related terms like “trust” and “faith,” and their derivatives and opposites, appear in nearly 50 percent of his poems. These terms frequently clump together, three and four to a poem, although it is equally true that there are major poems raising the issue of truth...

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Elizabeth Heale (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Heale, Elizabeth. “‘An owl in a sack troubles no man’: proverbs, plainness, and Wyatt.” Renaissance Studies 11, No. 4 (December 1997): 420-33.

[In the following essay, Heale explores how proverbs influenced Wyatt's verse, particularly the poem “A spending hand.”]

Wyatt's third satire, ‘A spending hand’, addressed to Sir Francis Bryan, begins and ends with a proverb and uses proverbs throughout. Appropriately, for such a discourse of wise saws, the speaking voice identifies itself as a giver of counsel, ‘I thowght forthwith to write, / Brian, to the, who knows how great a grace / In writing is to cownsell man the right’.1 The poem...

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John Watkins (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Watkins, John. “‘Wrastling for this world’: Wyatt and the Tudor Canonization of Chaucer.” In Refiguring Chaucer in the Renaissance, edited by Theresa M. Krier, pp. 21-39. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.

[In the essay below, Watkins investigates the many levels on which Wyatt's works engaged Chaucer's.]

For more than four hundred years, critics have honored Wyatt as the first representative of an English Renaissance conceived as an absolute break with the Middle Ages. Surrey eulogized him as the “hand … / That reft Chaucer the glory of his wit,” and Puttenham later canonized him with Surrey as one of the “two chieftains” of a...

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James Simpson (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Simpson, James. “Breaking the Vacuum: Ricardian and Henrician Ovidianism.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 29, No. 2 (Spring 1999): 325-55.

[In the essay which follows, Simpson contends that Wyatt and Surrey were writers operating within specific literary traditions, rather than the radical innovators they are often depicted to be.]

Thomas Wyatt, who was born 1503, died of natural causes in October 1542. In 1536, and again in 1541, he had come very close to dying of a sharp-bladed unnatural cause. In 1536 he was implicated in the series of executions surrounding the fall of Anne Boleyn, and in 1541 his enemies profited from the execution in...

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Further Reading


Muir, Kenneth. Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1963, 282 p.

Considered the standard scholarly biography of Wyatt.

Thomson, Patricia. Sir Thomas Wyatt and His Background. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1964, 298 p.

Considers Wyatt's life and work in the context of the social and literary setting of early Tudor England.


Jentoft, Clyde W. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980, 192 p.

Includes an annotated...

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