Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Metzger Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses Wyatt's representation of the hind and argues that Wyatt's depiction of a hunted woman as an animal parallels the very real risk that women faced in a society in which they held no power.
In early-sixteenth-century England, women had little identity that was their own to possess. Women were governed by fathers, brothers, and husbands, belonging to these men in a very literal sense, as property. Women were expected to be chaste and to present themselves in a manner that would not elicit gossip or in any way diminish the reputations of their male "owners." Women's lack of power in this society provides an important framework in which to examine Wyatt's sonnet "Whoso List to Hunt." The hind's status in the poem as the property of a royal owner makes her too dangerous for the narrator to hunt, and she is also herself at risk in being the property of a powerful man. The hind's seeming inability to recognize this danger, as a mere animal, adds to the complexity of the narrative, especially when the cultural and historical realities of the Tudor court are considered. Wyatt disguises the real-life female subject of the poem as a hind not because her identity is unimportant but because naming her would have created gossip that would endanger both poet and woman.
Hunting the hind is evidently a familiar activity for the narrator. The sonnet begins with the narrator stating, "I know where is an hind." He does not say that he knows where there are hinds; he knows where there is a specific hind. Thus, he immediately establishes that he has hunted her before, and the choice of animal is not random. The hunter admits that he cannot possess the hind and eventually warns off other hunters. Feminists might argue that Wyatt trivializes women in reducing the female subject to prey being chased through the forest by an eager hunter, but such an assessment limits the poem's possibilities. Within the language of poetry, an author can obfuscate meaning and deny intent by claiming that the reader has misread the text; in his sonnet, Wyatt clouds his meaning through the creation of the hind.
In Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, a book that examines the interplay between culture and certain poets' identities, the critic Stephen Greenblatt discusses Wyatt's caution in choosing the right words for his sonnet and the way in which he uses his language to disguise meaning. Greenblatt suggests that a cultural and historical reading of the poem might focus on Wyatt's experience as a diplomat when Henry VIII was negotiating treaties with the French and Spanish. Wyatt was conversant in several languages and certainly understood how the precise meanings of words could be crucial in diplomacy. According to Greenblatt, Wyatt was
highly conscious of the potential shifts in meaning as words pass from one language to another, and this sensitivity intersects with an acute awareness of the way conventions of courtesy and friendliness may conceal hostility and aggression, on the one hand, or weakness and anxiety, on the other.
As Wyatt's poem makes clear, the hunter recognizes that there is real risk for whoever pursues this hind. In the penultimate line of his sonnet, Wyatt writes, "Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am." The Latin phrase on the collar, "Touch me not," makes clear that she is owned by another man. This is a deliberate divergence from the original Petrarchan sonnet, in which the hind explains that the collar is meant to free her, even from Caesar's ownership. In line 11 of Petrarch's "Rime 190," the collar of the doe explains, "It pleased my Caesar to create me free." Caesar was often identified as a god to Roman citizens, and so this line suggests that a god has set the hind free. In Wyatt's sonnet, the collar signifies not freedom but ownership. The hunt is abandoned not because the hind is meant to be free but because she is the property of a powerful owner. Greenblatt points out that "the collar stops the hunt, transforms the hind from prey to pet or possession," although she does not behave as a possession. Indeed, Greenblatt explains that the collar itself is a "manifest sign of her wildness." Its...
(The entire section is 1789 words.)