illustrated portrait of Anne Boleyn, the subject of Wyatt's poem

Whoso List to Hunt

by Sir Thomas Wyatt

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Critical Overview

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Wyatt is considered the first of the great Elizabethan poets. His experiments with new formats, especially regarding meter and measure, were very influential in inspiring the great English poets who followed later in the sixteenth century, such as Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and, of course, William Shakespeare. Wyatt did not publish his poems, but he did circulate them within the Tudor court, where they were read and enjoyed. As a reflection of Wyatt's importance in the English literary canon, several new editions of his poetry were published in the last thirty years of the twentieth century, offering important insight into his work. Among the best are Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, edited by Kenneth Muir and Patricia Thomson (1969); Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems, edited by Joost Daalder (1975); and Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems, edited by Ronald A. Rebholz (1981).

In the introduction to his edition of Wyatt's poems, Joost Daalder observes that "Wyatt's poems now enjoy greater critical esteem than at almost any time since his death." Daalder recognizes that in the past Wyatt was often "severely attacked for his supposed lack of prosodic skill," but that is no longer the case. Indeed, much of that earlier criticism was directed at Wyatt's lack of smoothness in his use of iambic pentameter, but Daalder explains that Wyatt was striving not for smoothness but for originality. Regarding the criticism that Wyatt only imitated other poets, notably Petrarch, or was just a translator of poems into English, Daalder notes that Wyatt was a poet "whose style bears the stamp of his own personality." Even in his translations, Wyatt demonstrates a uniqueness that reflects his experience as a courtier and diplomat. Further, Daalder suggests that "originality is perhaps overvalued in our age"; that is, the translation of any literature into English was much valued in Wyatt's time, and so he did not need to perceive himself as an "original poet" in the same way that modern poets might. Daalder also mentions that some critics fault Wyatt because the actual phrasing in some of his poems lacks originality, but, according to Daalder, "we should not admire something because it is new or old, but because it is intrinsically important and appealing."

In the first chapter of Imitating the Italians: Wyatt, Spenser, Synge, Pound, Joyce, Reed Way Dasenbrock refers to Wyatt as the "first great English Petrarchan," conveying how important he was in influencing other poets, especially the greatest poets of the English Renaissance. According to Dasenbrock, Wyatt deserves greater admiration than has been forthcoming from literary scholars; he argues that Wyatt's "translations and imitations of Petrarch created a tradition of (and a form and language for) writing love sonnets in English, which later culminated in the great sonnet sequences of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare." That is, Dasenbrock sees Wyatt's imitations of Petrarch as critical contributions to Elizabethan poetry. Indeed, in the early sixteenth century, poets were expected to imitate the great masters of the past "in accordance with the Italian Renaissance canons of imitation that Petrarch himself established." Dasenbrock perceives that in altering the sonnet format, Wyatt "transforms all of these poems into his own highly personal poems of lament and reproach," and as a result "these poems of Wyatt have great intensity and power." He asserts that Wyatt's "interest in and work with Petrarch's poetry, in short, was one of the seeds of the English Renaissance."

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