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

Whoso List to Hunt

by Sir Thomas Wyatt

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What literary devices does Sir Thomas Wyatt use in "Whoso List to Hunt"?

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Thomas Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt" is a Petrarchan sonnet; it has fourteen lines, and a rhyme scheme of ABBA-ABBA-CDDC-EE. Compare to Shakespeare's later sonnets, and you will note that the rhyme scheme differs. Wyatt's sonnet is an early example of the genre in English; he is writing some fifty years before Shakespeare.

Wyatt uses various literary devices in this sonnet. He uses aureate diction, or the introduction of phrases from a "higher" language, to elevate the poem: "hélas," "noli me tangere." In the second instance, the use of this Latin phrase also supports the extended metaphor of the sonnet as a whole. Sonnets were typically love poems, and in this poem, the deer is used as a metaphorical representation of a woman who has escaped the speaker's grasp and his affections. When the speaker finds his deer, around "her fair neck" is written, "noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am." This is an allusion to Solinus' remarks that Caesar would have his white stags engraved with the command, "Do not touch me, for I belong to Caesar." Because "Caesar" can be understood to mean "king" (compare the German kaiser), this allusion helps the reader to understand that the deer has been claimed by a king, or a more important man, and is now beyond the reach of the speaker.

In many ways, this metaphor is not very flattering to either king, speaker, or lady, as it suggests that the lady in question is little more than a beautiful animal to be chased by those who "list to hunt." However, the theme of courtship as a hunt recurs in Tudor poetry and would continue thereafter. In this poem, however, we know that the hunt is ultimately a lost cause for the speaker, "sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind." This metaphor creates a vivid image of the impossibility of the situation, as we picture the speaker attempting to capture air in a holed net—obviously doomed to failure. The triumph in the initial apostrophe, a call to "whoso list to hunt," has faded to resignation at the sight of the words around the deer's neck, the evidence of a higher claim.

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In "Whoso List to Hunt," Sit Thomas Wyatt uses a number of literary devices, including the following:

  • Alliteration: In the first line, Wyatt repeats the H sound, as in "Whoso," "hunt," and "hind." Also, in line 5, he repeats the M sound, as evident in "may," "means," "my," and "mind."
  • Metaphor: Wyatt compares chasing the hind to catching the wind in a net (Line 8).
  • Repetition: Wyatt repeats the word "wearied" on the third and fifth lines, which emphasizes this feeling.
  • Imagery: Wyatt creates images of men hunting a deer through words like "fleeth" and "fainting," which help the reader experience this fast-paced activity. He also creates an image of a beautiful woman with the phrase "fair neck" in line 12. 
  • Allusions: Wyatt refers to King Henry VIII through the allusion to "Caesar" in the penultimate line. Arguably, the reference to the "hind" is also an allusion to Anne Boleyn, King Henry's second wife and the woman in whom Wyatt was romantically interested. This also reflects the poem's central theme of loss: Wyatt wanted Anne Boleyn but she was unattainable to him, just like a hind in the hunt.
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This is an example of a Petarchan sonnet--one octet and a sestet, fourteen lines.  The problem or issue is the woman the speaker loves is enticing and irresistable, but unattainable since she belongs to the King. 

The metaphor is used (the woman is compared to the deer [hind] which run freely in the King's forest lands and are illegal to hunt--punishable by death to those who are caught) to show the thrill of the hunt or pursuit of the woman.  The speaker tells others that they can go ahead with the chase as he is tired of the hunt--she is not as tame as she appears. 

The author also uses the classical allusion.  The "deer" is probably Anne Boleyn, and Wyatt also alludes to Caesar's deer--meaning the woman belongs to the all-powerful King of England, Henry VIII (Caesar).

Irony is also used in lines 13-14 of the poem since the deer so completely belonged to him that she is later beheaded for trumped up charges of infidelity.

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