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

Whoso List to Hunt

by Sir Thomas Wyatt
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Historical Context

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The Court of Henry VIII

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Wyatt created his sonnets during a period of sweeping artistic and cultural change, in the beginning of an era known as the English Renaissance. The English Renaissance was dominated by literature, whereas much of the continental European Renaissance was dominated by art and architecture. By the latter part of the sixteenth century, English literature was characterized by Christian beliefs; in particular, the conflicts created by the dissolving of the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of the Anglican Church by Henry VIII received much focus. Wyatt's poetry predates this focus on Christianity, instead showing the influence of the Italian Renaissance and the work of Petrarch.

Wyatt was a courtier and diplomat in the court of Henry VIII, who was immediately popular upon becoming king in 1509. He was tall and handsome, with the stature of an athlete, and the people loved him. As Henry VII was dying, he urged his son to marry Catherine of Aragon, who had been engaged to Henry's older brother, Arthur, before his death. Marrying Catherine would maintain the nation's alliance with Spain, which was politically important to England's security. Indeed, six weeks after his father's death, Henry VIII married Catherine, who became queen.

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Early in his reign, the young Henry VIII became a patron of the arts, encouraging music and literature in his court, such that Wyatt would have certainly felt comfortable as both courtier and poet. Henry was intelligent and well educated. He spoke French, Spanish, and Latin, and he composed music and wrote books, in addition to spending much time hunting and playing tennis. His interest in the joust and other acts of knightly pageantry extended to the field of conflict. He enjoyed displays of power, especially his own. He held large banquets, balls, and jousts, including a joust between the kings of England and France. Overall, the court of King Henry VIII was focused on theatrical displays and diplomacy and on seizing the pleasure of the moment.

Religion and Royal Marriage

As a young man and new husband, Henry VIII was very religious. He wrote and published a very popular book, Defence of the Seven Sacraments, defending the Roman Catholic Church and attacking Martin Luther. Luther was a German Augustinian monk who in 1517 challenged the excesses and abuses of the Roman Catholic Church by nailing ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. Luther's actions led to the Protestant Reformation. The attack on Luther by Henry VIII was very successful and went through several printings. In response, Pope Leo X rewarded the King with the title "Defender of the Faith" in 1521.

Later, however, Henry VIII would come to regret some of his defense of papal authority when his desire for a son began to outweigh his devotion to the Catholic Church. Although Catherine gave birth to a son in 1511, he did not survive. After a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, Princess Mary was born in 1516. Although the child was healthy, Henry wanted a son, and he soon began to think that he had offended God by marrying his older brother's intended wife. Henry VIII was only the second Tudor king, and he was concerned that not leaving a male heir would put the Tudor dynasty at risk. He became convinced that his marriage to Catherine was unlawful in God's eyes and that he needed to divorce Catherine and find a new queen, who would provide him with a son. Thomas Cardinal Wolsey tried for five years to persuade Pope Clement VII to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine, but he was unsuccessful.

The King's desire to divorce Catherine preceded his love of Anne Boleyn. By 1527, Henry VIII was indeed in love with Anne and wanted to marry her, and as Wyatt's poem attests, Henry's courtship of Anne was no secret. She was beautiful and more flamboyant and glamorous than Catherine, and Henry loved displays of beauty. By January 1533, Anne was pregnant, and she and Henry were secretly married. That year, too, Henry persuaded Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, to annul his marriage to Catherine. By 1534, a series of parliamentary actions had reduced the pope's authority in England, and the pope responded by excommunicating Henry. The English clergy and members of the court were then forced to choose between Henry and the pope; those who chose the pope were executed, and Henry also dissolved the monasteries and seized their land and goods. The romance with Anne Boleyn resulted in the English Protestant Reformation, which, in turn, more than doubled the King's revenues. Indeed, King Henry VIII was supreme in his own country, and he demanded that his subjects support his decisions. Those who did not were arrested, tried for treason, and executed. Wyatt's poem suggests that hunting royal property could be dangerous; he could not have foreseen that such danger could arise not only from the pursuit of the King's "hind" but also from religious and political actions.

Literary Style

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In literature, an allegory is an extended metaphor in which objects and events hold symbolic meanings outside of the literal meanings made explicit in the narrative. In Wyatt's sonnet, the hunter's pursuit of the hind can be held to represent Wyatt's pursuit of Anne Boleyn, and the hind's being the property of Caesar can represent the "ownership" of Anne Boleyn by King Henry VIII. All of the accompanying descriptions of the hunt and the hunter's emotions, then, can be applied to this actual romantic situation.

Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet, consists of two separate sections. The first part is the octave, an eight-line stanza, wherein a problem or issue is put forth. The second part is the sestet, wherein some resolution to the problem is provided. In "Whoso List to Hunt," the octave describes the futile pursuit of the hind, while the sestet explains why the hunter cannot capture his prey: she is the property of her royal master, and to capture her would endanger both the hind and the hunter. More specifically, Wyatt's sestet consists of a quatrain (four lines) and a couplet (two lines), as can be seen in examining the rhyme scheme. Petrarch divided his sonnets into octaves of abbaabba and sestets of various rhyme schemes, usually cdecde or cdcdcd. Wyatt's rhyme scheme is slightly different: abbaabba, cddc, ee. Within such structures, certain rhymes may be somewhat irregular, particularly in that certain words may have been pronounced differently in Elizabethan times. In Wyatt's sonnet, wind, as in "breeze," with a short i sound, is held to rhyme with the long i of hind, behind, and mind. Similarly, in the last couplet, the long a of tame is held to rhyme with the short a of am. In reading that couplet aloud, one might distort the sounds of either or both of those words in order to approximate a rhyme. In ending with a couplet, Wyatt puts emphasis on both of the last two lines; in contrast, the Petrarchan form places more emphasis on the last line of the octave and the last line of the sestet.


The most common meter of the Elizabethan period was pentameter, wherein a line of verse contains five measures, or feet. If each foot contains two syllables—such as with an iamb, where the second syllable is stressed—each line will contain a total of ten syllables. The resulting rhythm can heighten the reader's aesthetic appreciation of and emotional response to the poem. The best way to understand iambic pentameter is to read a poem aloud, paying close attention to the sounds of the stressed and unstressed syllables. Wyatt's use of iambic pentameter was irregular; in fact, when some of his poems were included in Tottel's Miscellany, the printer revised and smoothed out the meter. In "Whoso List to Hunt," lines 1, 4, 6, and 8 contain eleven syllables, and line 14 contains only nine syllables; the remaining lines all contain the expected ten syllables. With respect to the measures, or feet, line 10, for example, can be read as a sequence of five iambs; in line 5, on the other hand, only the last two feet are true iambs, while the first three are either trochees, with the first of two syllables stressed, or spondees, with the first and second syllables both stressed. Wyatt used meter and measure irregularly to create his own style.

Visual Imagery

Within a poem, the relationships between images can suggest important meanings. Line 3, "The vain travail hath wearied me so sore," calls to mind the image of a hunter weary with a chase; in being aware of the poem's allegory, the reader will associate this image with a suitor who has exhausted himself in trying to court the object of his affection. Throughout the poem, then, images of the active hunt are associated with the romantic situation in question, endowing it with a degree of excitement that might not otherwise be present. Indeed, effective visual imagery allows the reader to experience a poem in a heightened fashion.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1500s: Henry VIII receives the title "Defender of the Faith" from Pope Leo X for his opposition to Martin Luther, who is condemned as a heretic and excommunicated. After Luther's death, Pope Paul urges Emperor Charles V of Spain to go to war in Europe in an effort to eliminate Protestantism and reunite the Roman Catholic Church. The Church supplies both money and troops for this war.

    Today: Religion still plays a substantial role in international politics, but conflicts take place more explicitly between governments, rather than between religious denominations. In some cases, however, fundamentalism and religious fanaticism are linked to terrorism, which has led to the deaths of many innocent people around the globe.

  • 1500s: Henry VIII requires all of his noblemen to swear an oath acknowledging that he is the head of the Church of England. Sir Thomas More, Henry's good friend and the lord chancellor, is arrested and later executed when, as a devout Catholic, he refuses to take the oath demanded by Henry VIII.

    Today: The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, remains the titular head of the Church of England, but an oath acknowledging the monarch as head of the church is no longer required. The Catholic traditions for which Sir Thomas More gave his life remain in place.

  • 1500s: During the long reign of Henry VIII, he married six times. He divorced two of his wives and had two others beheaded for adultery. One wife died in childbirth, and the last wife outlived Henry and even remarried after his death. Marriage was complicated for monarchs during this period, since diplomatic treaties played important roles in marriage arrangements.

    Today: The situation surrounding the divorce of England's Prince Charles from Princess Diana illustrates how much royal marriage has changed. While the infidelity of both partners embarrassed the monarchy, Diana was not arrested, tried for treason, or beheaded. What has not changed since the sixteenth century is the public fascination with the marital choices of the royals.

Media Adaptations

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  • Four of Wyatt's poems were adapted by Thea Musgrave and recorded in 1953 as Four Madrigals, published by Chester Music. The songs are eight minutes in length and are sung by an unaccompanied chorus.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Amussen, Susan Dwyer, "Gender Order in Families and Villages," in An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England, Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 103, 117.

Bernard, G. W., "The Fall of Anne Boleyn," in the English Historical Review, Vol. 106, No. 420, July 1991, pp. 607, 609.

Daalder, Joost, "Introduction," in Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems, edited by Joost Daalder, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. xi-xiii.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way, "Understanding Renaissance Imitation: The Example of Wyatt," in Imitating the Italians: Wyatt, Spenser, Synge, Pound, Joyce, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, pp. 19, 30, 31.

Greenblatt, Stephen, "Power, Sexuality, and Inwardness in Wyatt's Poetry," in Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, University of Chicago Press, 1980, pp. 145-48, 152.

Petrarca, Francesco, "Rime 190," in The Poetry of Petrarch, translated by David Young, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004, p. 144.

Waller, Marguerite, "The Empire's New Clothes: Refashioning the Renaissance," in Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings, edited by Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley, University of Tennessee Press, 1989, pp. 169, 173.

Wyatt, Thomas, Sir, "Whoso List to Hunt," in Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems, edited by Joost Daalder, Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 7.

Further Reading

Fraser, Antonia, ed., The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, University of California Press, 1998.

Fraser's book is a large coffee-table book filled with many color portraits and copies of early English documents. She provides a concise biography of the kings and queens of England, presented in an easy-to-grasp narrative style and arranged chronologically. This book is very useful for digesting basic information about the British royalty.

Guy, John, Tudor England, Oxford, 1990.

This book, written in clear narrative prose, gives a historical account of the religious and political events of the Tudor reign. Guy includes discussion of economic and social conditions that were affected by the Protestant Reformation.

Jardine, Lisa, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, W. W. Norton, 1996.

Jardine looks at the Renaissance as a source not only of great cultural achievement but also of accomplishments in commerce. During the Renaissance, the acquisition of property became an important way to define success; Jardine examines the kinds of property that were acquired—including jewels, rich fabrics, tapestries, and art—and discusses the significance of the accumulation of goods.

Rose, Mary Beth, ed., Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Syracuse University Press, 1985.

This book remains a good source for understanding the diversity of women's lives during the period in which Wyatt was writing. The essays included by Rose explore women's education, women's roles in the church, and women as the subject of men's writing.

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain, 3 Vols., Hyperion, 2000–2002.

Schama's three volumes contain many maps, illustrations, and photos as well as a very readable history of Britain; Schama is often described as a storyteller. There is a great deal of information about both the obscure legends of Britain and the better-documented events. Schama includes information about the earliest chronicles of British history, the traditions that govern the nation, and the wars and monarchs that have defined it.

Singman, Jeffery L., Daily Life in Elizabethan England, Greenwood Press, 1995.

This book provides many small details about life in sixteenth-century England, explaining how people lived, the clothes they wore, what they ate, and the kinds of jobs they held.

Weir, Alison, Henry VIII: The King and His Court, Ballantine Books, 2001.

This is a very readable biography with a great deal of information about the Tudor court and the people who inhabited it. Weir includes several interesting pieces of information about Wyatt's role within the court, making her book an especially good read for fans of Wyatt's work.

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