Sir Thomas Wyatt: Renaissance Playboy
by, 01-18-2008 at 04:29 AM (6163 Views)
After posting my little imitation of a Wyatt poem, I realized that some of those kind enough to take the time to be reading this blog might not know much about Wyatt or his work, so here's an entry dedicated to the playboy who brought the sonnet to England.
Life: Here is a picture of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), which, as far as I am aware, is the only extant portrait of him. I remember being rather disappointed with this portrait upon first seeing it because it makes him look rather more like Calvin than the sort of lover and adventurer I had imagined from reading his poetry, but it is an excellent Holbein sketch that brings out the gravitas he no doubt wished to display as a royal ambassador:
Wyatt was born in Kent three years into the 16th century. His father was an adviser to King Henry VIII (the one famous for doing in all those wives) and Thomas entered the King's court at the age of 13 in a position bearing the title of "Sewer Extraordinary." (No, he had nothing to do with the King's W.C. or the sewers of London. The term sewer back then referred to a servant who waited at table.) He studied at Cambridge and, in 1521 married a girl named Elizabeth Brooke who had a Baron as her brother and royal blood in her veins. They had one son, Thomas Wyatt Jr., who later got executed at a young age for treasonously attempting to interfere with Queen Mary's plans to marry Philip of Spain...but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Wyatt separated from his wife after only about three years of marriage, and after accusing her of adultery. Given the number of ladies alluded to in his own verse, one somehow doubts that she was the only offending party, but of course that is all historical speculation. One woman in particular who had a great affect on both Wyatt's work and his life was Anne Boleyn, the young beauty who also caught the eye of Henry VIII and led to the King's famous divorce of his first wife, Catherine, and along with it, England's break from the Roman Catholic Church. Here's a portrait of the 16th century "it girl," Anne:
It is uncertain whether Wyatt actually had an affair with Boleyn or not. Certainly before long it was apparent to him that the King had a covetous eye on the lass, which would make it dangerous to make a move. He certainly was crazy about her, and his unfulfilled desire is the subject of his most famous and anthologized poem, "Whoso List to Hunt.":
Whoso list to hunt ? I know where is an hind !
But as for me, alas ! I may no more,
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore ;
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer ; but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow ; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt
As well as I, may spend his time in vain !
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about ;
' Noli me tangere* ; for Cæsar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.'
*The Latin phrase, Noli me tangere means "don't touch me."
By this time Wyatt was acting as a royal ambassador and traveled all over Europe on the King's business. Some of his poetry reflects his travels, such as this one written as he was returning from a trip to Spain:
Among his other missions, he travelled to Rome in an attempt to get the Pope to grant Henry a divorce so that the King could marry Boleyn. Wyatt was knighted in 1535, but in the next year his passion for Anne Boleyn nearly became his undoing when he was arrested on dual charges for arguing with the Duke of Suffolk and under suspicion of having adulterous relations with the now queen Anne. After spending time in the Tower of London he was ultimately released , but while there he witnessed Anne Boleyn's execution, which he always maintained was a grave injustice. The swiftness with which the King's favor shifted inspired another recurring theme in Wyatt's poetry about the instability and untrustworthiness of court life. One minute you're being knighted. The next thing you know you're rotting in the tower! Here's one of his lesser known poems that is of interest in that it was written in the tower and appears to be on the subject of Anne's execution (text and notes taken from the Luminarium website, which in turn used the Norton 6th edition):Tagus, farewell! that westward with thy streams
Turns up the grains of gold already tried
With spur and sail, for I go to seek the Thames
Gainward the sun that shewth her wealthy pride,
And to the town which Brutus sought by dreams,
Like bended moon doth lend her lusty side.
My king, my country, alone for whome I live,
Of mighty love the wings for this me give.
Wyatt was once again charged with treason in 1541, but again acquitted of all charges. He died a year later in 1542 at the age of 39.V. Innocentia
Veritas Viat Fides
me inimici mei 1
by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder
Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.2
The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.
These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.
The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.
By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.
1. The Latin title adapts Psalm 16.9: "My enemies
surround my soul." Wyatt's name ("Viat") in the
title is surrounded by Innocence, Truth, and Faith.
2. "It thunders through the realms," Seneca,
Phaedra, 1.1140. The first two stanzas paraphrase
lines from that play.
Writing: Wyatt is one of the early writers of the English Renaissance. He is also, along with Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, the writer credited with bringing the sonnet form to England. Indeed many of his poem are in fact translations of sonnets by Petrarch, including "Whoso list to hunt" and the following translation of Petrarch's "la nave mia colma d'oblio":
As with many of the poets during the Renaissance period, the vast majority of his poetic works were never published in his lifetime, and the works he was perhaps best known for in the period in and around his lifetime were his poetic translations of the psalms. Readers today, however, tend to favor his sonnets and his lively verse on the subjects of love and politics. If you're interested in reading more, here's a link to many of his poems at the Luminarium pages: http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/wyattbib.htm Enjoy!My galley chargèd with forgetfulness
Thorough sharp seas, in winter nights doth pass
'Tween rock and rock; and eke mine enemy, alas,
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness,
And every oar a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forcèd sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the wearied cords great hinderance;
Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain.
Drownèd is reason that should me consort,
And I remain despairing of the port.