This is the second of a series of essays meant to engage non-specialists, indeed, non-English majors, with the work of important poets. In spite of my own inclination toward the abstruse I mean to limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography. I vow to avoid tempting byways and to include no footnotes whatsoever.
Like other sixteenth century poets, Wyatt might be said to be an incidental author. None of his poetry was published until fifteen years after his death. He spent his life as a courtier, beginning with the post of Sewer Extraordinary to Henry VIII (nothing to do with waterworks) and serving in such roles as Marshal of Calais, Sheriff of Kent, Ambassador to Spain, and factotum. Proximity to power was not only rewarding, but dangerous as well; Wyatt was three times imprisoned. He very narrowly avoided the fate of his contemporary Surrey, famed as the perfect courtier, and the later Raleigh, both of whom were executed.
A courtier in Wyatt’s day was a soldier and a statesman, but he was also expected to be a cultivated man with musical and artistic accomplishments and a mastery of elegant and sophisticated flirtation and love. Palace intrigues were erotic and personal as well as political, and, under the rule of an almost absolute monarch, each of these activities had its perils. In 1536 Wyatt fell under suspicion of adultery with Anne Boleyn and was imprisoned in the Bell Tower at the Tower of London. From his window he witnessed her execution and that of five of her reputed lovers. Surely only through the influence of powerful friends did the poet avoid the same scaffold. Anne Boleyn is commonly regarded as the subject of one of his most lovely and haunting poems.
Who so list to hount I know where is an hynde
but as for me helas I may no more,
the vayne travaill hath weried me so sore.
I ame of theim that farthest cometh behind;
yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
drawe from the Deere but as she fleeth afore,
faynting I folowe. I leve of therefor.
sithens in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount I put him owte of dowbte,
as well as I may spend his tyme in vain;
and graven with Diamondes in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte;
noli me tangere, for Caesar's I ame;
and wylde for to hold though I seme tame.
Thomas Wyatt (and Surrey) introduced the sonnet in English sometimes using what came to be called the English rhyme scheme. This poem is in part derived from Petrach’s 190th sonnet, “Una candida cerva,” but it is far from a translation. The initial ambiguity of love as hunting (like love as war) is balanced and heightened by the poet’s fruitless exhausted devotion, the picture of the Ovidian or courtly lover. To him joy in love is as unlikely as seeking to hold the wind in a net. The Latin tag “do not touch me” is often regarded as evidence that the beloved lady is already claimed by the king, but many lovers far from royal courts might experience the same frustration. Another might express similar sentiments as, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” The original use of “noli me tangere” spoken by Christ to Mary Magdalene in the Latin Bible in a scene painted by Fra Angelico, Botticelli and many others, is complicated by its use (according to Solinus) as a warning to poachers against taking Caesar’s deer. The concluding line is a beautiful expression of the fierce emotion that necessarily accompanies tender feelings.
Wyatt in another poem delineating the subtle ambivalences of desire figures the beloved as a wild beast once more. The mysterious evocative power of those lovers who “with naked foot” “stalked in my chamber” is outdone by the straightforwardness of the natural encounter of the second stanza. The lady, her gown falling off her shoulder in “a pleasant manner,” kisses the poet and asks “How like you this?” To me the conclusion, which lapses into a mild resentment, is anticlimactic, but the first two stanzas are sublime.
They fle from me that sometyme did me seke
With naked fote stalking in my chambre.
I have sene theim gentill, tame, and meke
That nowe are wyld and do not remembre
That sometyme they put theimself in daunger
To take bred at my hand; and nowe they raunge
Besely seking with a continuell chaunge.
Thancked be fortune it hath ben othrewise
Twenty tymes better, but ons in speciall,
In thyn arraye after a pleasaunt gyse,
When her lose gowne from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her armes long and small,
Therewithall swetely did me kysse,
And softely said "dere hert, howe like you this?"
It was no dreme: I lay brode waking.
But all is torned thorough my gentilnes
Into a straunge fasshion of forsaking;
And I have leve to goo of her goodeness,
And she also to vse new fangilnes.
But syns that I so kyndely ame served,
I would fain knowe what she hath deserved.
These are the poems I most remember, though Wyatt’s importance as a translator and importer of Continental forms and conventions to England had immense historical consequences. His first publisher Tottel said the country owed to him and Surrey “that our tong is able in that kynde [the French or Italian style] to do as praiseworthy as ye rest.” Tottel was speaking of what amounted to nearly the last gasp of courtly love, yet when Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset, memorialized Wyatt, he mentioned only his translations of the Psalms. To Thomas Warton he was the “first polished English satirist,” and his most “pleasing” work was moralizing on “the felicities of retirement” as in “Mine owne John Poynz” (a poem of over a hundred lines appended to this essay). If Wyatt’s love poetry represents a late efflorescence of the troubadour tradition, the lines addressed to John Poynz look forward to the measured pentameters of Dryden and then the masterful Pope.
Like many another writer of sublime love poetry, Wyatt could also advocate an abstemious withdrawal. When obliged to leave the court he expressed what might be regarded as admirable detachment (philosophic or, in terms of poetry, Horatian, perhaps) though he had no hesitation about returning as soon as he was able. Assuredly a literary convention – he sticks fairly close to Luigi Alamanni’s tenth satire and uses the Italian’s terza rima (the first instance in English) – the praise of a life of retirement is doubtless also true, at least as true as the same man’s delight in the complex rivalries and games he here ridicules. One thinks of the magnificent Chinese poems reflecting on the civil service and, for some, the greater wisdom of a solitary life in the mountains, not for fear of losing innocence, but because one is sated and yet not satisfied with having had altogether too much of court life. The Wyatt who wrote these lines would have understood Yuán Méi, who at the age of thirty-two, resigned his post and spent the remainder of his career writing books of poetry and travel and cooking. If Wyatt is expressing sour grapes over his involuntary rustication, he has made as fine a wine of it as he had done with the sweets of love.
Myne owne John Poynz, sins ye delight to know
The cause why that homeward I me drawe,
And fle the presse of courtes wher soo they goo,
Rather then to lyve thrall, under the awe
Of lordly lokes, wrappid within my cloke,
To will and lust learning to set a lawe;
It is not for becawse I skorne or moke
The powar of them, to whome fortune hath lent
Change over us, of Right, to strike the stroke:
But true it is that I have allwais ment
Lesse to estime them then the common sort,
Of outward thinges that juge in their intent,
Withowt regarde what dothe inwarde resort.
I grawnt sumtime that of glorye the fyar
Dothe touche my hart: me lyst not to report
Blame by honour and honour to desyar.
But how may I this honour now atayne
That cannot dy the coloure blak a lyer?
My Poynz, I cannot frame me tune to fayne,
To cloke the trothe for praisse withowt desart,
Of them that lyst all vice for to retayne.
I cannot honour them that settes their part
With Venus and Baccus all theire lyf long;
Nor holld my pece of them allthoo I smart.
I cannot crowche nor knelle to do so grete a wrong,
To worship them, lyke gode on erthe alone,
That ar as wollffes thes sely lambes among.
I cannot with my wordes complayne and mone,
And suffer nought; nor smart wythout complaynt,
Nor torne the worde that from my mouthe is gone.
I cannot speke and loke lyke a saynct,
Use wiles for witt and make deceyt a pleasure,
And call crafft counsell, for proffet styll to paint.
I cannot wrest the law to fill the coffer
With innocent blode to fede my sellff fat,
And doo most hurt where most hellp I offer.
I am not he that can alow the state
Off highe Cesar and dam Cato to dye,
That with his dethe dyd skape owt off the gate
From Cesares handes (if Lyve do not lye)
And wolld not lyve whar lyberty was lost:
So did his hert the commonn wele aplye.
I am not he suche eloquence to boste,
To make the crow singing as the swane,
Nor call the lyon of cowarde bestes the moste
That cannot take a mows as the cat can:
And he that dithe for hunger of the golld
Call him Alessaundre; and say that Pan
Passithe Apollo in muske manyfolld;
Praysse Syr Thopas for a nobyll talle,
And skorne the story that the knyght tolld.
Praise him for counceill that is droncke of ale;
Grynee when he laugheth that bereth all the swaye,
Frowne when he frowneth and grone when he is pale;
On othres lust to hang boeth nyght and daye:
None of these pyntes would ever frame in me;
My wit is nought--I cannot lerne the waye.
And much the lesse of thinges that greater be,
That asken helpe of colours of devise
To joyne the mene with eche extremitie,
With the neryst vertue to cloke always the vise:
And as to pourpose like wise it shall fall,
To presse the vertue that it may not rise;
As dronkenes good felloweshippe to call;
The frendly ffoo with his dowble face
Say he is gentill and courtois therewithall;
And say that Favell hath a goodly grace
In eloquence; and crueltie to name
Zele of justice and chaunge in tyme and place;
And he that suffreth offence withoute blame
Call him pitefull; and him true and playn
That raileth rekles to every mans shame.
Say he is rude that cannot lye and fayn;
The letcher a lover; and tirannye
To be the right of a prynces reigne.
I cannot, I. No, no, it will not be.
This is the cause that I could never yet
Hang on their slevis that way as thou maist se
A chippe of chaunce more then a pownde of witt.
This maketh me at home to hounte and to hawke
And in fowle weder at my booke to sitt.
In frost and snowe then with my bow to stawke,
No man doeth marke where so I ride or goo;
In lusty lees at libertie I walke,
And of these newes I fele nor wele nor woo,
Sauf that a clogg doeth hang yet at my hele:
No force for that for it is ordered so,
That I may lepe boeth hedge and dike full well.
I ame not now in Ffraunce to judge the wyne,
With saffry sauce the delicates to fele;
Nor yet in Spaigne where oon must him inclyne
Rather then to be, owtewerdly to seme.
I meddill not with wittes that be so fyne,
No Fflaunders chiere letteth not my sight to deme
Of black and white, nor taketh my wit awaye
With bestylnes, they beeste do so esteme;
Nor I ame not where Christe is geven in pray
For mony, poison and traison at Rome,
A commune practise used nyght and daie:
But here I ame in Kent and Christendome
Emong the muses where I rede and ryme;
Where if thou list, my Poynz, for to come,
Thou shalt be judge how I do spend my tyme.