Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 11 October 1542) was a 16th c. English ambassador and lyric poet credited with introducing the sonnet to English literature.
His family adopted the Lancastrian side in the Wars of Roses. His father Henry had been a Privy Councillor of Henry VII and remained a trusted adviser when Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509. Thomas followed his father to court after his education at St John’s College, Cambridge. Entering the King’s service, he was entrusted with many important diplomatic missions.
His poems were circulated at court and may have been published anonymously in the anthology The Court of Venus (earliest edition c.1537) during his lifetime, but were not published under his name until after his death; the first major book to feature and attribute his verse was Tottel’s Miscellany (1557), printed 15 years after his death
Wyatt’s poetry and influence
Wyatt’s professed object was to experiment with the English language, to civilise it, to raise its powers to equal those of other European languages. A significant amount of his literary output consists of translations and imitations of sonnets by Italian poet Petrarch; he also wrote sonnets of his own. He took subject matter from Petrarch’s sonnets, but his rhyme schemes are significantly different. Petrarch’s sonnets consist of an “octave” rhyming abba abba, followed by a “sestet” with various rhyme schemes. Wyatt employs the Petrarchan octave, but his most common sestet scheme is cddc ee. This marks the beginning of an English contribution to sonnet structure of three quatrains and a closing couplet.
Wyatt experimented in stanza forms including the rondeau, epigrams, terza rima, ottava rima songs, and satires, as well as with monorime, triplets with refrains, quatrains with different length of line and rhyme schemes, quatrains with codas, and the French forms of douzaine and treizaine. He introduced the poulter’s measure form, rhyming couplets composed of a 12-syllable iambic line (Alexandrine) followed by a 14-syllable iambic line (fourteener), and he is considered a master of the iambic tetrameter.
Wyatt’s poetry reflects classical and Italian models, but he also admired the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, and his vocabulary reflects that of Chaucer; for example, he uses Chaucer’s word newfangleness, meaning fickle, in They flee from me that sometime did me seek. Many of his poems deal with the trials of romantic love, and the devotion of the suitor to an unavailable or cruel mistress. Other poems are scathing, satirical indictments of the hypocrisies and pandering required of courtiers who are ambitious to advance at the Tudor court.
Wyatt’s poems are short but fairly numerous. His 96 love poems appeared posthumously (1557) in a compendium called Tottel’s Misceallany. The most noteworthy are thirty-one sonnets the first in English. Ten of them were translations from Petrarch, while all were written in the Petrarchan form, apart from the couplet ending which Wyatt introduced. serious and reflective in tone, the sonnet shows some stiffness of construction and the metrical uncertainty indicative of difficulty Wyatt found in the new form. Yet their conciseness represents a great advance on the prolixity and uncouthness of much earlier poetry. Wyatt was also responsible for the most important introduction of the personal note into English. Poetry, for, though following his models closely, he wrote of his own experiences. His epigrams, songs and rondeaux are lighter than the sonnets, and they also reveal the care and the elegance that were typical of the new romanticism. His satires are composed in the Italian terza rima, once again showing the direction of the innovating tendencies.
The Egerton Manuscript is an album containing Wyatt’s personal selection of his poems and translations which preserves 123 texts, partly in his handwriting. Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) is the Elizabethan anthology which created Wyatt’s posthumous reputation; it ascribes 96 poems to him, 33 not in the Egerton Manuscript. These 156 poems can be ascribed to Wyatt with certainty on the basis of objective evidence. Another 129 poems have been ascribed to him purely on the basis of subjective editorial judgment. They are mostly derived from the Devonshire Manuscript Collection and the Blage manuscript. Rebholz comments in his preface to Sir Thomas Wyatt, The Complete Poems, “The problem of determining which poems Wyatt wrote is as yet unsolved”. However, this statement is predicated on his preface’s perfunctory rejection of the most significant contribution to its resolution, Richard Harrier’s The Canon of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Poetry, which presents an analysis of the documentary evidence establishing a solid case for rejecting 101 of the 129 texts ascribed to Wyatt on no objective basis whatsoever.
Critical opinions have varied widely regarding Wyatt’s work. Eighteenth century critic Thomas Warton considered Wyatt “confessedly an inferior” to his contemporary Henry Howard, and felt that Wyatt’s “genius was of the moral and didactic species” but deemed him “the first polished English satirist”. The 20th century saw an awakening in his popularity and a surge in critical attention. His poems were found praisworthy by numerous poets, including Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Yvor Winters, Basil Bunting, Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. C. S. Lewis called him “the father of the Drab Age” (i.e. the unornate), from what he calls the “golden” age of the 16th century. Patricia Thomson describes Wyatt as “the Father of English Poetry”.
Rumoured affair with Anne Boleyn
Many have conjectured that Wyatt fell in love with Anne Boleyn in the early- to mid-1520s. Their acquaintance is certain, but it is not certain whether the two shared a romantic relationship. George Gilfillan implies that Wyatt and Boleyn were romantically involved. In his verse, Wyatt calls his mistress Anna and might allude to events in her life:
And now I follow the coals that be quent,
From Dover to Calais against my mind
Gilfillan argues that these lines could refer to Anne’s trip to France in 1532 prior to her marriage to Henry VIII and could imply that Wyatt was present, although his name is not included among those who accompanied the royal party to France. Wyatt’s sonnet “Whoso List To Hunt” may also allude to Anne’s relationship with the King:
Graven in diamonds with letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about,
“Noli me tangere [Do not touch me], Caesar’s, I am”.
In still plainer terms, Wyatt’s late sonnet “If waker care” describes his first “love” for “Brunette that set our country in a roar” — clearly Boleyn.
Adultery and the Axe
In May 1536, Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower of London for allegedly committing adultery with Anne Boleyn. He was released later that year thanks to his friendship or his father’s friendship with Thomas Cromwell, and he returned to his duties. During his stay in the Tower, he may have witnessed Anne Boleyn’s execution (19 May 1536) from his cell window, as well as the executions of the five men with whom she was accused of adultery; he wrote a poem which might have been inspired by that experience.
Around 1537, Elizabeth Darrell was his mistress, a former maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon. She bore Wyatt three sons.
Swings and Round-and-Roundabouts
By 1540, he was again in the king’s favour, as he was granted the site and many of the manorial estates of the dissolved Boxley Abbey. However, he was charged again with treason in 1541; the charges were again lifted, but only thanks to the intervention of Queen Catherine Howard and on the condition of reconciling with his wife. He was granted a full pardon and restored once again to his duties as ambassador. After the execution of Catherine Howard, there were rumours that Wyatt’s wife Elizabeth was a possibility to become Henry VIII’s next wife, despite the fact that she was still married to Wyatt. He became ill not long after and died on 11 October 1542 around age 39. He is buried in Sherborne Abbey.
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