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Sir Thomas Wyatt
Shearsman Classics Vol. 6
Other titles in the Shearsman Classics series:
1. Poets of Devon and Cornwall, from Barclay to Coleridge
2. Robert Herrick: Selected Poems
3. Spanish Poetry of the Golden Age in contemporary English translations
4. Mary, Lady Chudleigh: Selected Poems (ed. Julie Sampson)
5. William Strode: Selected Poems (ed. Tony Frazer)
7. Tottel’s Miscellany (1557)
8. The Phoenix Nest (1593)
Forthcoming in the same series:
9. England’s Helicon (1600) S e l e c t e d Po ems of S i r T h o m a s Wya t t Selected & edited by Michael Smith Shear sman Book s Exeter Published in the United Kingdom in 2010 by Shearsman Books Ltd 58 Velwell Road Exeter EX4 4LD www.shearsman.com ISBN 978-1-84861-102-3 Notes and editorial matter copyright © Michael Smith, 2010.
Contents Introduction 7 Sonnets 15 Epigrams 19 Canzoni 23 Ballades 31 Songs (1) 42 Songs (2) 56 Songs (3) 62 Epistolary Satires 67 Attributed Poems Sonnets 77 Epigrams 78 Ballades 79 Songs (1) 85 Songs (2) 91 Songs (3) 94 Other Poems 98 Notes 99 Index of First Lines 110 5 Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) A Brief Life Although a fair deal is known of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s public life as a courtier and diplomat, details of his personal life are scarce, and Wyatt’s biographers frequently resort to speculation to fill out historical ignorance. While some of Wyatt’s poems may plausibly yield up personal details, the reader should be aware that most of the poems function within the literary conventions of their time (Petrarch’s Rime being a great influence on Wyatt and on his friend Sydney, as well as on their Spanish contemporaries, Garcilaso de la Vega and Boscán), and it is therefore not always wise to decode these poems into the poet’s personal experience—as, for example, Alice Oswald does in her Faber Selected Poems, 2008, to which I refer later—something that has often occurred in the reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
What follows is a brief summary of the basic known facts of Wyatt’s life, leaving the reader at liberty to read the poems as he or she wishes. That said, there is no doubt that a good number of Wyatt’s poems register his personal life, but, caveat lector.
Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503 at the castle of his father, Sir Henry Wyatt, at Allington in Kent. His father suffered torture and incarceration during the reign of Richard III because of his support for Henry Tudor who, on becoming King, retained him as Privy Chancellor in 1509.
At the age of twelve Wyatt enrolled in St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he took his master’s degree in 1520. In the same year he married Elizabeth Brooke, daughter of Thomas Brooke, Lord Cobham. On entering court life, his first service was as Clerk of the King’s Jewels, and a year later he was made ‘an esquire to the body of the king’, a position once held by Chaucer. In 1527 he also followed Chaucer’s experience in becoming attached to the suite of Sir John Russell on a diplomatic mission to Italy to negotiate with the papal court to 7 secure Rome’s backing in enrolling the assistance of Venice in an effort to hinder Charles V’s inroads into Italy. That mission proved a failure and Charles V sacked Rome in 1527. In the course of the mission, Wyatt visited Venice, Ferrara, Bologna and Florence, and it has been speculated that Wyatt may have met Pietro Bembo (1470–1547), Ludovico Ariosto (1447–1533) and Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527).
In 1529–30 he became High Marshal of Calais. He was chief ewerer at the marriage of Anne Boleyn in 1533. It may be that this appointment to Calais was a means of keeping him out of the presence of Anne Boleyn. Wyatt’s ‘interest’ in Anne Boleyn resulted in his imprisonment in the Tower in 1536, at the time of Boleyn’s execution.
Wyatt became friendly with the powerful Thomas Cromwell. He was knighted in 1535 and dispatched, unwillingly on his part, on another embassy to Charles V. On his second return to England in 1540, Wyatt witnessed Cromwell’s execution and, because of his relationship with Cromwell, he was accused of treasonable behaviour during his Spanish mission. Only his frank self-defence secured his acquittal.
Despite all this, Wyatt continued to receive further appointments. He was Sheriff of Kent in 1536–37. His last major mission was to the Emperor Charles V who was visiting Francis I. He travelled through the Low Countries and France, with the aim of discovering whether the Emperor and Francis were conspiring at an invasion of England. When the threat of an invasion ended because of the complex relationship between the two Kings, Wyatt, having returned to England, found himself once more in trouble, accused of involvement with the King Henry’s enemies. Summoned to Hampton Court, arrested and handcuffed, he was imprisoned once again in the Tower. He managed, however, to secure his release.
Again concerned that France was intent on war with England, Henry ordered Wyatt to travel to Falmouth to meet the Emperor’s envoy, Montmorency de Corrierez, and to escort 8 him to London. Wyatt rode over-hastily and contracted a fever.
Taking a rest at the home of Sir John Horsey at Sherborne in Dorset, he died there on 11 October, 1542, and was buried in Sherborne Abbey (now the Church of St. Mary).
Finally, on a more personal note, in 1525 Wyatt separated from his wife, Elizabeth Brooke, on grounds of adultery. In about 1536 he fell in love with Elizabeth Darrell, a Catholic and maid of honour to Katherine of Aragon, with whom he had a son and to both of whom he bequeathed his estate. Elizabeth Darrell was the great love of the poet’s life.
How personally should Wyatt’s poems be read? Alice Oswald in her succinct and interesting Introduction to her Faber & Faber selection expresses the view that Wyatt is essentially what she calls a ‘fear poet’: that, in a great number of his poems, and particularly in his sonnets, there is an anxiety that he might end up being executed, as had been his patron, Thomas Cromwell.
Now, there is no doubt that Wyatt lived in dangerous times under Henry VIII, and there is no doubt that he had justifiable cause for concern for his own safety. But there is also a danger in too close a personalization, even of the sonnets. Oswald does admit this and believes that many of the poems should be read in two registers, the personal and the Petrarchan. This view reminds me of all the books that have been written about Shakespeare’s sonnets, which attempt to reconstruct a biography of at least some aspects of Shakespeare’s personal life. My own view, although she presses the personalised reading more closely than I would, concurs largely with that of Oswald’s, which is that the reader should keep an open mind in reading Wyatt, just as the readers of Lorca’s poetry should be wary of reductively reading his poems, especially the love poems, as expressions of Lorca’s homosexuality.
9 Wyatt Englished Petrarch as the Spaniard Garcilaso de la Vega Hispanicised him. Naturally, elements of English and Spanish can be found in the work of both ‘translators’; but the nature of these elements, I think, are a matter for the reader. There is, admittedly, an ambivalence in this approach. That ambivalence, however, can be a part of the reader’s experience of the poems.
In the end, it will provide an aesthetically richer and more exploratory response. My selection attempts to accommodate that ambivalence.
Metre in Wyatt
The effects of metre are extremely difficult to calculate.
In English, as has frequently been pointed out, it is almost impossible to have any two readers scan a poem in exactly the same way; often, indeed, the differences, even when the scansion is done by so-called-experts, are very great. Little wonder, then, that Hopkins’ metrical experiments are still the subject of debate and various interpretations. The root of the problem seems to be that the metres of classical Greek and Latin, which late European literary culture used as its models, are out of sorts with the modern European languages that had to accommodate them; it is ironic that the Romans sometimes complained that Greek metres were an imposition for them and distorted Latin into syntactic patterns out of keeping with the genius of the language. Hopkins, expert in classical metres, felt deeply the lack of relevance of these metres to the English language, and he devoted his energy and talent to attempting to supply what he considered a more natural or native metrics.
As regards the strategy of reproducing regularity of verse line, to which so much time and effort has been devoted by scholars, some years ago I came upon a few interesting remarks made by Gerald Bullett in his introduction to his fine anthology, Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century (London, 1947). Bullett was considering the charge against Wyatt of crude versification, and he reproduced a scansion (carried out by strict metrical 10 procedure) of a Wyatt sonnet (‘The longe love that in my thought doeth harbar’) made by a Professor Padelford, which
reduced the sonnet to aural chaos:
Now no one contends that Wyatt’s sonnets are models of correct versification; admittedly his rhythms are often awkward and blundering. But Padelford’s pointing of this particular specimen is, quite fantastically wrong... This talk of trochees and iambs belongs rather to the grammar books than to literary criticism. The jargon of (a classical and so largely irrelevant) prosody is no necessary part of an English poet’s equipment, useful though it may be to a student of Greek verse. Many of the loveliest of English lyrics have been written by men to whom such terms were Greek in more senses than one.
The t’rum t’rum method of scanning blank verse is derived presumably from the fundamental error that syllable counting is the basis of English metre. It is a method that can be applied with consistent success only to the worst examples. Surrey [Bullett quotes some lines by Surrey which, like Wyatt’s, have been rhythmically mangled by Professor Padelford] may or may not have aimed at strict uniformity of stress in his blank verse, but mercifully he did not achieve it. Either inexpertness or native sense— most probably an alternation of the two—saved him from the flat pedestrianism of the lesser Elizabethans and their undistinguished successors. He can be clumsy and he can be metrically tedious; but he escapes the consistent tedium which must result, in English, from an exact undeviating identity between the basic metre and the actual tempo: in the best blank verse one is conscious or half-conscious of both, and much of the energy of the verse is generated by the tension between them, or, in other words, by the variety of the patterns woven on a basic metrical, structure.
Now this analysis seems generally valid to me. It can be applied to Shakespeare’s verse, and it explains how Shakespearian actors can often succeed in eliminating the basic metrical pattern (which is iambic) as they play on the tempo to achieve a conversational rhythm which they believe (fallaciously, I think) 11 makes Shakespeare more acceptable to a modern audience (i.e. an audience that will hardly notice that they are hearing verse).At any rate, I think it is true that in the best blank verse of the Elizabethans the basic (iambic) metrical beat serves as the regulating, though sometimes barely heard, rhythm for what one might call the interpretative or dramatic rhythm, the language in the mouth of a credible speaking man or woman.
I think most of this is applicable to Wyatt’s poems. Of course there are some awkwardnesses of rhythm in Wyatt, as indeed can be said of almost any poet’s work—one has only to think of Hardy—but a poet who can manage so perfectly the iambic beat as, for instance, in ‘Forget not yet...’ can scarcely be considered the inept metricist that some scholars judge him to be. Not enough is known about exactly how English was pronounced in Wyatt’s time and it is quite possible that our ignorance of such pronunciation may account for our some of our oral miscasting of a good deal of his verse. Nor should we forget that Wyatt wrote many of his poems for musical accompaniment. To allow for all this, and the essential but not mechanically applied iambic beat, should take us a good way toward a fair reading of the poems.
At one time I considered indicating my own subjective reading of Wyatt’s metrical rhythm with acutes and graves but I finally judged this too prescriptive. Better to let the reader makes his or her own way using the general guidelines, laid down in this note on Wyatt’s prosodic procedures as I understand them.
I think there is usually enough guidance in Wyatt’s poems to suggest how he wants his poems to be read: the basic iambic beat with multiple variations, especially in the use of the trochee at the beginning of lines.
This is not a scholarly edition of Wyatt’s poems. The best such edition is undoubtedly Rebholz’s Penguin edition (1997), on which I have based this selection. I am also indebted to the notes 12 in that scholarly volume. My principal and modest contribution to this present Selected Poems, is in the selection of the poems and a few speculative ideas on Wyatt’s prosody. As with Garcilaso de la Vega and Boscán in Spanish, Wyatt, along with Surrey, had the distinction of carrying over the prosodic and thematic sophistication of Petrarch. To consider him out of this context, as Ivor Winters tends to do, is to distort his achievement. What Wyatt did, with great success, was to English Petrarch, to give Petrarch a homely rootedness in English; but this could not have been achieved without the example of Petrarch. In selecting the poems, my disposition was to concentrate on the native Englishness of Wyatt, his somehow managing to adapt the bland tropes of Petrarch to his own personal experience, that indomitable English sense of individuality.
Selected Bibliography Sir Thomas Wyatt The Complete Poems, ed. R.A. Rebholz.
(London: Penguin Books, 1978, rev. 1997). The Roman numerals that head each poem in this edition are based on the Rebholz volume.
Sir Thomas Wyatt Selected Poems, ed. Alice Oswald (London:
Faber & Faber, 2008).
Gerald Bullett (ed.) Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century (London: