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

Whoso List to Hunt

by Sir Thomas Wyatt

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Why is hunting the hind described as a "vain travail" in "Whoso List to Hunt"?

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In "Whoso List to Hunt," the speaker describes a failed courtship through the metaphor of a failed hunt for an elusive hind. This hunt, he says, is a "vain travail," a useless work, a fruitless effort, for he will never catch the woman he pursues.

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Sir Thomas Wyatt's poem “Whoso List to Hunt” is actually an extended metaphor for a failed courtship attempt on the part of the speaker. The “hind” in this case is not a literal animal but rather a lady. The speaker has been pursuing her, but it has been a “vain travail,” a fruitless work. No matter how hard he hunts (or how steadily he courts), he cannot catch this hind. The woman continues to elude him, to flee from him, and to scorn him.

Therefore, this hunter/suitor is giving up. He is exhausted by his hard work, yet he continually falls way behind, fainting as he pursues his love. Therefore, he will “leave off.” Hunting (or courting) this hind (or woman) is like trying to catch the wind in a net. It is useless and frustrating.

The speaker warns the next hunter that he “may spend his time in vain.” His efforts will come to nothing. This woman might as well have a sign around her neck (graven with diamonds at that) saying, “Do not touch me.” She is simply too wild to hold, even though she may seem tame at first. Indeed, this hunt is a “vain travail,” for the speaker will never catch his prey or his lady love and neither will anyone else.

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