Whoso List to Hunt

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Whoso List to Hunt
Thomas Wyatt

Author Biography
Poem Text
Poem Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


"Whoso List to Hunt" is one of thirty sonnets written by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Although Wyatt never published his poems, several, including "Whoso List to Hunt," appeared in the 1557 edition of the printer Richard Tottel's Songs and Sonnets written by the Right Honorable Lord Henry Howard late Earl of Surrey and other, more briefly referred to as Tottel's Miscellany.

"Whoso List to Hunt" is held to be Wyatt's imitation of "Rime 190," written by Petrarch, a fourteenth-century Italian poet and scholar. In "Whoso List to Hunt," Wyatt describes a hunt wherein a deer is pursued and ultimately owned by the royal who owns the land. Scholars generally believe that the poem is an allegory referring to Anne Boleyn's courtship by King Henry VIII, such that when Wyatt speaks of the deer as royal property not to be hunted by others, he is acknowledging that Anne has become the property of the King alone. Wyatt was said to have been interested in Anne—and may have been her lover—but would have withdrawn as a suitor after the King made clear his wish to claim her.

Wyatt introduced the sonnet, a fourteen-line poem with a fixed format and rhyme scheme, to England. Despite not publishing his poetry, Wyatt would have made his poems readily available to others. During the Elizabethan period, poets passed their work around in aristocratic circles, in what has been described as a sort of game of one-upmanship: each poet's work inspired his readers to create something comparable or better. Wyatt chose the Petrarchan sonnet as his inspiration. The Petrarchan sonnet is a fourteen-line poem in which the first eight lines, the octave, present a problem, which is resolved by the final six lines, the sestet. Wyatt altered the Petrarchan formula, ending the sestet with two lines, a couplet, that rhyme. As such, he set a precedent for later poets, many of whom further altered the sonnet formula. Also, in focusing on a hunting allegory in "Whoso List to Hunt," Wyatt demonstrated that sonnets could explore more than unrequited love, on which Petrarch had focused. Wyatt's poem is frequently found in literature anthologies, as well as in several editions of his own poetry, including Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems (1975), edited by Joost Daalder.

Author Biography

Sir Thomas Wyatt is thought to have been born in about 1503 at Allington Castle, in Kent, England. Wyatt's father, Henry Wyatt, was a powerful and wealthy member of the Privy Council under two kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII. Henry Wyatt's influence was such that his young son Thomas was allowed to be an honorary attendant at the christening of Princess Mary in 1516. Some scholars assume that Thomas Wyatt was educated at Cambridge, since young men of his rank commonly attended that institution. In 1520, Wyatt married Elizabeth Brooke; their son, also named Thomas, who would later be known as Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger, was born in 1521. The elder Wyatt's marriage had apparently ended by 1525, when he charged his wife with adultery and ceased to live with her.

Wyatt's political career advanced quickly. Initially, he served in minor clerical roles in the royal court, such as clerk of the king's jewels. In 1525, Wyatt was part of an official delegation to the French court, and the following year he accompanied a legation to the papal court in Rome, where he apparently became acquainted with the poetry of Petrarch, a fourteenth-century Italian. After his return to England, Wyatt began translating Petrarch's poems, becoming the first Englishman to compose a sonnet, a fourteen-line poem with a specific format. Wyatt's primary focus, however, was his life as a courtly gentleman. By 1532, he had found a political patron, Thomas Cromwell, who was secretary and adviser on religious matters for Henry VIII. By 1535, Wyatt had been knighted and awarded considerable property and men to command in Kent. The following year, Elizabeth Darrell became Wyatt's mistress, which she would remain until his death.

Wyatt was imprisoned several times, once after being accused of being one of the lovers of Anne Boleyn, who became the second wife of Henry VIII; Wyatt was able to watch Boleyn's execution in 1536 from his prison cell in the Tower of London. Within months, he had been cleared of charges and was freed. In 1540, Wyatt's patron, Cromwell, was executed, and the following year Wyatt was arrested yet again. Nevertheless, he once again found favor in the court. Although Wyatt was a knight with considerable courtly importance, he is best known as a poet. He made translations of Petrarch popular in England and also created his own sonnets. No precise date has been attributed to his poem "Whoso List to Hunt," but scholars generally assume that it was written sometime in the late 1520s or early 1530s, as the subject of the poem is thought to be Anne Boleyn, who was then being courted by Henry VIII. As was common during this period, Wyatt never published his works; indeed, he had no financial incentive to do so. Poetry was a diversion, not a vocation. Sir Thomas Wyatt died in Sherborne, England, in the fall of 1542.

Poem Text

  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 farthest cometh behind.
  Yet may I by no means my wearied mind            5
  Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
  Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
  Sithens 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,            10
  And graven with diamonds in letters plain
  There is written her fair neck round about:
  'Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
  And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.'

Poem Summary

Lines 1-4

In line 1 of "Whoso List to Hunt," the narrator states that for those who wish to hunt, he knows of a particular hind, a female deer. The narrator himself is trying to abandon the hunt, acknowledging in line 2 that this hind is beyond his reach. Indeed, he is "wearied" from the "vain travail," the useless work, of the hunt; he has begun to recognize the futility of the pursuit. He laments in the fourth line that he is the last of the pursuers, the one "that farthest cometh behind."

Lines 5-8

In the second stanza, the narrator states that he cannot take his "wearied mind … from the deer." When she flees, he proclaims, "Fainting I follow." Nevertheless, he is ultimately forced to indeed abandon the chase, as she is too fast and all that he can catch is the wind that rises after she passes. In sum, the first eight lines, the octave, state the problem of the writer's wasted hunt.

Lines 9-14

In the closing sestet, the invitation initially offered by the narrator to whoever wishes to hunt this particular hind is partly rescinded; in line 9, the narrator states that he will remove any doubt about the wisdom of doing so. Just as his hunt was in vain, so would be those of other hunters, as the hind wears a diamond collar around her neck proclaiming her ownership by another. The concluding couplet notes that the collar reads "Noli me tangere," or "Touch me not" in Latin. Thus, the first part of the warning is "Touch me not, for Caesar's I am." According to legend, long after the ancient Roman emperor Caesar's death, white stags were found wearing collars on which were inscribed the words "Noli me tangere; Caesaris sum," or "Touch me not; I am Caesar's." The first part of that phrase, "Noli me tangere," is also a quotation from the Vulgate Bible, from John 20:17, when Christ tells Mary Magdalene, "Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father." In the final line, the warning on the collar continues: the deer herself declares that while she appears tame, holding her is dangerous, as she is wild.

Media Adaptations

  • Four of Wyatt's poems were adapted by Thea Musgrave and recorded in 1953 as Four Madrigals, published by Chester Music. The songs are eight minutes in length and are sung by an unaccompanied chorus.


Courtly Love

Traditionally, early English sonnets focused on romantic and idealized love, as did the Petrarchan sonnets that inspired the English to adopt the format. The love sonnet often celebrated the woman's beauty, comparing in great detail the features of her face and body to forms in nature. For example, a poet might compare a woman's cheeks to roses in bloom. In "Whoso List to Hunt," Wyatt deviates from the typical love sonnet and casts the woman as a deer, who is pursued in an evidently ardent fashion. In being not an inanimate object of the suitor's affection but a wild animal in flight, the female has more personality than the typical subject of a courtly love poem. While she does not speak, she holds a sort of dialogue with the narrator through her actions and through the display of her collar. Thus, Wyatt shifts the perspective on courtly love to focus on the ideas of masculine desire and ownership.

Topics For Further Study

  • Select at least two additional sonnets by other sixteenth-century poets, such as William Shakespeare or Sir Philip Sidney, to read alongside Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt" and the Petrarchan sonnet that inspired Wyatt, "Rime 190." Write an essay in which you compare and contrast the rhyme and meter of these four sonnets as well as the manner in which the English poets use the sonnet to explore different topics of Elizabethan life. Discuss what your findings suggest about the evolution of the sonnet form and about the interests and abilities of each poet.
  • The court of King Henry VIII was filled with gaiety and spectacle. Henry was himself well known for his elaborate clothing, and he encouraged his courtiers to dress for "show" as well. Research the garments characteristic of the Tudor court and create a poster presentation of your findings, using illustrations to help explain the nature and purpose of the various articles. Explain what these clothes reveal about the Tudor court and especially about what the people valued.
  • Watch one of the film versions of the life of Henry VIII and his six wives and compare the film to what you have discovered through research about the real six wives of Henry VIII. Create an individual "biography" for each wife that will function as a comparative study guide; then, after watching the film, make a poster or graph for each wife's comparison. Discuss the changes that the film's actors and director made to the actual personages and events and why those changes might have been made.
  • A feminist study of Wyatt's poem "Whoso List to Hunt" might focus on the objectification of the woman prey, who is hunted as if she were a forest animal. Research the roles of women in sixteenth-century English society, paying particular attention to how women acted as daughters, wives, and mothers. Write a report that examines the following issues: Consider how wealth or poverty affected women's roles. How much control did women have over their bodies and their property? Discuss women's legal rights, if any, and what they might have done if they chose not to marry. Evaluate the lives of these women in relation to the lives of women in modern society. Finally, considering the role that you might have played as either a man or a woman, explain whether or not you would have enjoyed living in this time period.
  • Using the fourteen-line format, write your own love sonnet. You might employ one of the customary rhyme schemes of Elizabethan poets, or you can create your own rhyme scheme; regardless, a clear pattern must be present. Your topic can be any kind of love—love for a pet, a parent, a grandparent, a friend, or even an object like a car. Then write a one-page critique of your poem. What do you consider your poem's strengths and weaknesses? Explain why you chose your rhyme scheme and whether adhering to it was difficult or easy. Discuss why you chose your particular topic and how you approached the actual writing of the sonnet.

Divine Right of Kings

The doctrine of the "divine right of kings" held that kings were God's representatives on earth and that all of the king's subjects were, in fact, his property. The final lines of the sonnet, when it is revealed that the hind's collar declares her to be the property of Caesar alone, allude to this doctrine. The royal ruler supposedly had the right to possess this female, regardless of her wishes or the desires of any other suitors. While he courted Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII gave her many gifts, which established that he was serious about her. These gifts also served to warn other suitors that the object of the King's desire was not available to other men. Although Anne Boleyn did not wear a collar inscribed with the King's name, she wore jewels and other gifts that he supplied. As king, Henry VIII would have believed in his divine right to possess his subjects, and he would not have been shy about seizing whomever he desired.


In Wyatt's sonnet, the hunter can be said to be obsessed with possessing his prey. He describes himself as "wearied" twice, in lines 3 and 5. In line 7, he refers to himself as "fainting" as he continues to follow the hind, even as she flees him. The pursuit is dangerous, as the deer is labeled as royal property, but the hunter follows anyway. When a desire is so intense that it cannot be ignored, even when danger is present, it might be labeled an obsession; mere reasoning is not enough to rid the obsessed lover of his desire.


The object of the hunt in Wyatt's sonnet is a hind, a female deer, which is held to represent the person of Anne Boleyn. The deer is hunted as prey and wears a collar that proclaims her ruler's ownership over her. This portrayal of a woman as a forest animal to be hunted and possessed reflects the low esteem with which women were often viewed in Elizabethan society. In this allegory, courtship and wooing have no role in the relationship between hunter and hunted, and the female cannot escape the fact that she is a royal possession.



In literature, an allegory is an extended metaphor in which objects and events hold symbolic meanings outside of the literal meanings made explicit in the narrative. In Wyatt's sonnet, the hunter's pursuit of the hind can be held to represent Wyatt's pursuit of Anne Boleyn, and the hind's being the property of Caesar can represent the "ownership" of Anne Boleyn by King Henry VIII. All of the accompanying descriptions of the hunt and the hunter's emotions, then, can be applied to this actual romantic situation.

Petrarchan Sonnet

The Petrarchan sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet, consists of two separate sections. The first part is the octave, an eight-line stanza, wherein a problem or issue is put forth. The second part is the sestet, wherein some resolution to the problem is provided. In "Whoso List to Hunt," the octave describes the futile pursuit of the hind, while the sestet explains why the hunter cannot capture his prey: she is the property of her royal master, and to capture her would endanger both the hind and the hunter. More specifically, Wyatt's sestet consists of a quatrain (four lines) and a couplet (two lines), as can be seen in examining the rhyme scheme. Petrarch divided his sonnets into octaves of abbaabba and sestets of various rhyme schemes, usually cdecde or cdcdcd. Wyatt's rhyme scheme is slightly different: abbaabba, cddc, ee. Within such structures, certain rhymes may be somewhat irregular, particularly in that certain words may have been pronounced differently in Elizabethan times. In Wyatt's sonnet, wind, as in "breeze," with a short i sound, is held to rhyme with the long i of hind, behind, and mind. Similarly, in the last couplet, the long a of tame is held to rhyme with the short a of am. In reading that couplet aloud, one might distort the sounds of either or both of those words in order to approximate a rhyme. In ending with a couplet, Wyatt puts emphasis on both of the last two lines; in contrast, the Petrarchan form places more emphasis on the last line of the octave and the last line of the sestet.


The most common meter of the Elizabethan period was pentameter, wherein a line of verse contains five measures, or feet. If each foot contains two syllables—such as with an iamb, where the second syllable is stressed—each line will contain a total of ten syllables. The resulting rhythm can heighten the reader's aesthetic appreciation of and emotional response to the poem. The best way to understand iambic pentameter is to read a poem aloud, paying close attention to the sounds of the stressed and unstressed syllables. Wyatt's use of iambic pentameter was irregular; in fact, when some of his poems were included in Tottel's Miscellany, the printer revised and smoothed out the meter. In "Whoso List to Hunt," lines 1, 4, 6, and 8 contain eleven syllables, and line 14 contains only nine syllables; the remaining lines all contain the expected ten syllables. With respect to the measures, or feet, line 10, for example, can be read as a sequence of five iambs; in line 5, on the other hand, only the last two feet are true iambs, while the first three are either trochees, with the first of two syllables stressed, or spondees, with the first and second syllables both stressed. Wyatt used meter and measure irregularly to create his own style.

Visual Imagery

Within a poem, the relationships between images can suggest important meanings. Line 3, "The vain travail hath wearied me so sore," calls to mind the image of a hunter weary with a chase; in being aware of the poem's allegory, the reader will associate this image with a suitor who has exhausted himself in trying to court the object of his affection. Throughout the poem, then, images of the active hunt are associated with the romantic situation in question, endowing it with a degree of excitement that might not otherwise be present. Indeed, effective visual imagery allows the reader to experience a poem in a heightened fashion.

Historical Context

The Court of Henry VIII

Wyatt created his sonnets during a period of sweeping artistic and cultural change, in the beginning of an era known as the English Renaissance. The English Renaissance was dominated by literature, whereas much of the continental European Renaissance was dominated by art and architecture. By the latter part of the sixteenth century, English literature was characterized by Christian beliefs; in particular, the conflicts created by the dissolving of the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of the Anglican Church by Henry VIII received much focus. Wyatt's poetry predates this focus on Christianity, instead showing the influence of the Italian Renaissance and the work of Petrarch.

Wyatt was a courtier and diplomat in the court of Henry VIII, who was immediately popular upon becoming king in 1509. He was tall and handsome, with the stature of an athlete, and the people loved him. As Henry VII was dying, he urged his son to marry Catherine of Aragon, who had been engaged to Henry's older brother, Arthur, before his death. Marrying Catherine would maintain the nation's alliance with Spain, which was politically important to England's security. Indeed, six weeks after his father's death, Henry VIII married Catherine, who became queen.

Early in his reign, the young Henry VIII became a patron of the arts, encouraging music and literature in his court, such that Wyatt would have certainly felt comfortable as both courtier and poet. Henry was intelligent and well educated. He spoke French, Spanish, and Latin, and he composed music and wrote books, in addition to spending much time hunting and playing tennis. His interest in the joust and other acts of knightly pageantry extended to the field of conflict. He enjoyed displays of power, especially his own. He held large banquets, balls, and jousts, including a joust between the kings of England and France. Overall, the court of King Henry VIII was focused on theatrical displays and diplomacy and on seizing the pleasure of the moment.

Religion and Royal Marriage

As a young man and new husband, Henry VIII was very religious. He wrote and published a very popular book, Defence of the Seven Sacraments, defending the Roman Catholic Church and attacking Martin Luther. Luther was a German Augustinian monk who in 1517 challenged the excesses and abuses of the Roman Catholic Church by nailing ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. Luther's actions led to the Protestant Reformation. The attack on Luther by Henry VIII was very successful and went through several printings. In response, Pope Leo X rewarded the King with the title "Defender of the Faith" in 1521.

Later, however, Henry VIII would come to regret some of his defense of papal authority when his desire for a son began to outweigh his devotion to the Catholic Church. Although Catherine gave birth to a son in 1511, he did not survive. After a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, Princess Mary was born in 1516. Although the child was healthy, Henry wanted a son, and he soon began to think that he had offended God by marrying his older brother's intended wife. Henry VIII was only the second Tudor king, and he was concerned that not leaving a male heir would put the Tudor dynasty at risk. He became convinced that his marriage to Catherine was unlawful in God's eyes and that he needed to divorce Catherine and find a new queen, who would provide him with a son. Thomas Cardinal Wolsey tried for five years to persuade Pope Clement VII to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine, but he was unsuccessful.

The King's desire to divorce Catherine preceded his love of Anne Boleyn. By 1527, Henry VIII was indeed in love with Anne and wanted to marry her, and as Wyatt's poem attests, Henry's courtship of Anne was no secret. She was beautiful and more flamboyant and glamorous than Catherine, and Henry loved displays of beauty. By January 1533, Anne was pregnant, and she and Henry were secretly married. That year, too, Henry persuaded Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, to annul his marriage to Catherine. By 1534, a series of parliamentary actions had reduced the pope's authority in England, and the pope responded by excommunicating Henry. The English clergy and members of the court were then forced to choose between Henry and the pope; those who chose the pope were executed, and Henry also dissolved the monasteries and seized their land and goods. The romance with Anne Boleyn resulted in the English Protestant Reformation, which, in turn, more than doubled the King's revenues. Indeed, King Henry VIII was supreme in his own country, and he demanded that his subjects support his decisions. Those who did not were arrested, tried for treason, and executed. Wyatt's poem suggests that hunting royal property could be dangerous; he could not have foreseen that such danger could arise not only from the pursuit of the King's "hind" but also from religious and political actions.

Critical Overview

Wyatt is considered the first of the great Elizabethan poets. His experiments with new formats, especially regarding meter and measure, were very influential in inspiring the great English poets who followed later in the sixteenth century, such as Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and, of course, William Shakespeare. Wyatt did not publish his poems, but he did circulate them within the Tudor court, where they were read and enjoyed. As a reflection of Wyatt's importance in the English literary canon, several new editions of his poetry were published in the last thirty years of the twentieth century, offering important insight into his work. Among the best are Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, edited by Kenneth Muir and Patricia Thomson (1969); Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems, edited by Joost Daalder (1975); and Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems, edited by Ronald A. Rebholz (1981).

Compare & Contrast

  • 1500s: Henry VIII receives the title "Defender of the Faith" from Pope Leo X for his opposition to Martin Luther, who is condemned as a heretic and excommunicated. After Luther's death, Pope Paul urges Emperor Charles V of Spain to go to war in Europe in an effort to eliminate Protestantism and reunite the Roman Catholic Church. The Church supplies both money and troops for this war.

    Today: Religion still plays a substantial role in international politics, but conflicts take place more explicitly between governments, rather than between religious denominations. In some cases, however, fundamentalism and religious fanaticism are linked to terrorism, which has led to the deaths of many innocent people around the globe.
  • 1500s: Henry VIII requires all of his noblemen to swear an oath acknowledging that he is the head of the Church of England. Sir Thomas More, Henry's good friend and the lord chancellor, is arrested and later executed when, as a devout Catholic, he refuses to take the oath demanded by Henry VIII.

    Today: The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, remains the titular head of the Church of England, but an oath acknowledging the monarch as head of the church is no longer required. The Catholic traditions for which Sir Thomas More gave his life remain in place.
  • 1500s: During the long reign of Henry VIII, he married six times. He divorced two of his wives and had two others beheaded for adultery. One wife died in childbirth, and the last wife outlived Henry and even remarried after his death. Marriage was complicated for monarchs during this period, since diplomatic treaties played important roles in marriage arrangements.

    Today: The situation surrounding the divorce of England's Prince Charles from Princess Diana illustrates how much royal marriage has changed. While the infidelity of both partners embarrassed the monarchy, Diana was not arrested, tried for treason, or beheaded. What has not changed since the sixteenth century is the public fascination with the marital choices of the royals.

In the introduction to his edition of Wyatt's poems, Joost Daalder observes that "Wyatt's poems now enjoy greater critical esteem than at almost any time since his death." Daalder recognizes that in the past Wyatt was often "severely attacked for his supposed lack of prosodic skill," but that is no longer the case. Indeed, much of that earlier criticism was directed at Wyatt's lack of smoothness in his use of iambic pentameter, but Daalder explains that Wyatt was striving not for smoothness but for originality. Regarding the criticism that Wyatt only imitated other poets, notably Petrarch, or was just a translator of poems into English, Daalder notes that Wyatt was a poet "whose style bears the stamp of his own personality." Even in his translations, Wyatt demonstrates a uniqueness that reflects his experience as a courtier and diplomat. Further, Daalder suggests that "originality is perhaps overvalued in our age"; that is, the translation of any literature into English was much valued in Wyatt's time, and so he did not need to perceive himself as an "original poet" in the same way that modern poets might. Daalder also mentions that some critics fault Wyatt because the actual phrasing in some of his poems lacks originality, but, according to Daalder, "we should not admire something because it is new or old, but because it is intrinsically important and appealing."

In the first chapter of Imitating the Italians: Wyatt, Spenser, Synge, Pound, Joyce, Reed Way Dasenbrock refers to Wyatt as the "first great English Petrarchan," conveying how important he was in influencing other poets, especially the greatest poets of the English Renaissance. According to Dasenbrock, Wyatt deserves greater admiration than has been forthcoming from literary scholars; he argues that Wyatt's "translations and imitations of Petrarch created a tradition of (and a form and language for) writing love sonnets in English, which later culminated in the great sonnet sequences of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare." That is, Dasenbrock sees Wyatt's imitations of Petrarch as critical contributions to Elizabethan poetry. Indeed, in the early sixteenth century, poets were expected to imitate the great masters of the past "in accordance with the Italian Renaissance canons of imitation that Petrarch himself established." Dasenbrock perceives that in altering the sonnet format, Wyatt "transforms all of these poems into his own highly personal poems of lament and reproach," and as a result "these poems of Wyatt have great intensity and power." He asserts that Wyatt's "interest in and work with Petrarch's poetry, in short, was one of the seeds of the English Renaissance."


Sheri Metzger Karmiol

Metzger Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses Wyatt's representation of the hind and argues that Wyatt's depiction of a hunted woman as an animal parallels the very real risk that women faced in a society in which they held no power.

In early-sixteenth-century England, women had little identity that was their own to possess. Women were governed by fathers, brothers, and husbands, belonging to these men in a very literal sense, as property. Women were expected to be chaste and to present themselves in a manner that would not elicit gossip or in any way diminish the reputations of their male "owners." Women's lack of power in this society provides an important framework in which to examine Wyatt's sonnet "Whoso List to Hunt." The hind's status in the poem as the property of a royal owner makes her too dangerous for the narrator to hunt, and she is also herself at risk in being the property of a powerful man. The hind's seeming inability to recognize this danger, as a mere animal, adds to the complexity of the narrative, especially when the cultural and historical realities of the Tudor court are considered. Wyatt disguises the real-life female subject of the poem as a hind not because her identity is unimportant but because naming her would have created gossip that would endanger both poet and woman.

Hunting the hind is evidently a familiar activity for the narrator. The sonnet begins with the narrator stating, "I know where is an hind." He does not say that he knows where there are hinds; he knows where there is a specific hind. Thus, he immediately establishes that he has hunted her before, and the choice of animal is not random. The hunter admits that he cannot possess the hind and eventually warns off other hunters. Feminists might argue that Wyatt trivializes women in reducing the female subject to prey being chased through the forest by an eager hunter, but such an assessment limits the poem's possibilities. Within the language of poetry, an author can obfuscate meaning and deny intent by claiming that the reader has misread the text; in his sonnet, Wyatt clouds his meaning through the creation of the hind.

In Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, a book that examines the interplay between culture and certain poets' identities, the critic Stephen Greenblatt discusses Wyatt's caution in choosing the right words for his sonnet and the way in which he uses his language to disguise meaning. Greenblatt suggests that a cultural and historical reading of the poem might focus on Wyatt's experience as a diplomat when Henry VIII was negotiating treaties with the French and Spanish. Wyatt was conversant in several languages and certainly understood how the precise meanings of words could be crucial in diplomacy. According to Greenblatt, Wyatt was

highly conscious of the potential shifts in meaning as words pass from one language to another, and this sensitivity intersects with an acute awareness of the way conventions of courtesy and friendliness may conceal hostility and aggression, on the one hand, or weakness and anxiety, on the other.

As Wyatt's poem makes clear, the hunter recognizes that there is real risk for whoever pursues this hind. In the penultimate line of his sonnet, Wyatt writes, "Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am." The Latin phrase on the collar, "Touch me not," makes clear that she is owned by another man. This is a deliberate divergence from the original Petrarchan sonnet, in which the hind explains that the collar is meant to free her, even from Caesar's ownership. In line 11 of Petrarch's "Rime 190," the collar of the doe explains, "It pleased my Caesar to create me free." Caesar was often identified as a god to Roman citizens, and so this line suggests that a god has set the hind free. In Wyatt's sonnet, the collar signifies not freedom but ownership. The hunt is abandoned not because the hind is meant to be free but because she is the property of a powerful owner. Greenblatt points out that "the collar stops the hunt, transforms the hind from prey to pet or possession," although she does not behave as a possession. Indeed, Greenblatt explains that the collar itself is a "manifest sign of her wildness." Its presence implies that she is otherwise impossible to grasp (note the line "wild for to hold"), just as the narrator states in line 8 that he is essentially seeking to capture the wind. With respect to the poem's allegory, the woman in question is wild in that society cannot tame or control her. This is especially relevant in the patriarchal society of sixteenth-century England, in which women were to be controlled, first by fathers and brothers and later by husbands.

One might easily study this poem and focus on what is missing—a clear feminine identity with which modern readers can identify. According to Marguerite Waller, the poem holds nothing for the female reader. In Waller's essay, "The Empire's New Clothes: Refashioning the Renaissance," she points out that Wyatt's poem is about a man, the hunter. Waller notes that the poem was created for male readers, which is of course historically true, as the predominately English poets of the Renaissance would have passed their poems around only to their male friends. Since women had so little poetic voice early in the sixteenth century as to be essentially nonexistent, women's lack of real identity as the subjects of men's poems is unsurprising. But this lack of identity limits only the woman reader who chooses to ignore the poem's historical and social context. When Waller asserts that women readers "contemplate an image of their own nonidentity or noncoincidence with themselves when they try to read themselves as readers of this poem," she is trying to amend a cultural injustice that cannot be changed. Waller points out that a feminine presence cannot be found in Wyatt's poem, such that a woman instead "comes face to face with a kind of 'nonbeing' when she tries to read herself in the story of the hunter."

Indeed, "Whoso List to Hunt" is a text in which the reader is meant to identify with the male hunter. However, to argue that there is no feminine identity ignores the implied presence of Anne Boleyn, whose story can be understood as a clear warning of the dangers that result when women are appropriated as property by rich and powerful males. Waller claims that the hunt "casts the poet in the role of aristocratic hunter and the beloved in the role of an animal to be hunted" as well as that the "poet's superior social status and the inferior status of the woman" are not challenged. But again, Waller is discounting historical reality. In sixteenth-century England, women were judged to be inferior—even women such as Anne Boleyn, who perhaps had more notoriety than most. Although women readers should acknowledge Wyatt's trivialization of the feminine, the poem still stands as a historical and cultural representation of the way in which courtship and politics could be intermingled by the poet. Henry's court, of which Wyatt was a member, would not have separated love from politics.

What Do I Read Next?

  • To better understand the sonnet tradition, consider The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English (2001), edited by Phillis Levin. This book begins with the sonnets of Petrarch and Chaucer and has representative sonnets from each century since, including a good selection of twentieth-century poets. Five of Wyatt's poems are reprinted in this book, including "Whoso List to Hunt."
  • Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works (2002), edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, provides a selection of texts by one of the sixteenth century's most important poets. His sonnets were influenced by both Petrarch and Wyatt.
  • Edmund Spenser's Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Criticism (1993) takes a critical look at the work of another poet who was influenced by Wyatt.
  • A good source for sixteenth-century love sonnets is The Sonnets: Poems of Love (1980), by William Shakespeare.
  • To hear William Shakespeare's sonnets read aloud, listen to Sonnets CD (1996), narrated by Sir John Gielgud.
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese: A Celebration of Love (1986) presents love sonnets written with a woman's voice.

All of the Tudor court—including Wyatt, according to gossip—was obsessed with Anne. In that Anne was later executed for adultery, her story and the importance of an unsullied reputation add another layer of complexity to the sonnet. In An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England, Susan Dwyer Amussen proposes that "women's reputations were more easily threatened than were men's." In many cases, vague allegations were enough to prove hazardous to women, and as a possession of the King, Anne would have been especially vulnerable to gossip involving infidelity. In "The Fall of Anne Boleyn," G. W. Bernard assesses the evidence against Anne in an effort to determine whether the charges of infidelity were true or just gossip. Ultimately, Bernard decides that Anne was executed because she really did commit adultery, perhaps in an effort to become pregnant and supply Henry with a male heir or perhaps because Henry was unfaithful and she was jealous.

As Amussen suggests in her discussion of challenges to social order, "The primary challenge to social expectations within marriage arose when women interpreted gender in ways that differed from the prescriptions of social theory." Anne's mistake, then, was in not recognizing that the rules for women were different than those for men. As Bernard observes, her downfall might have been "a defiant resentment of the double standard which allowed that freedom [infidelity] to men but not to women." In evaluating historical documents and what is known about Anne's reputation, Bernard notes that, according to rumors, before Henry was to marry Anne, "he asked Wyatt what he thought of her: Wyatt had told the King not to marry her because she was a bad woman." In response, Henry banished Wyatt from the court for two years as punishment. Later, after Anne was arrested for adultery and just days before she was to be executed, Wyatt was also arrested. Bernard notes that, again according to rumor, Wyatt "wrote to Henry, reminding him of what he had said, and adding that he knew what Anne was like, because she had been willing, many years ago, to kiss him." This is supposition, as no real records prove either why Wyatt was arrested or why he was released, but this possible episode offers one way to evaluate the last line of Wyatt's sonnet.

One might posit that within Wyatt's poem, the hunter is even less powerful than the hind. Although women had no power in this period, neither did men when confronted with the King's desires. Greenblatt suggests that the intensity of the hunter's grief at the loss of the hind means that "neither audience nor poet is permitted to stand at a comfortable distance from the speaker." Greenblatt contends that Wyatt's poem is not merely a monologue; the readers are participants. The hunter longs for the woman, and this passion draws the reader into the poem and forces a response. The fact that the woman is depicted as a wild animal should be irrelevant, as the discerning reader understands that the poem offers layers of complexity and disguise regarding the hunter's unabated desire, which is leashed only because the risk is too great. The lesson for female readers is not that there is no feminine identity; it is that the expression of the feminine entails risk, especially in a society in which women lack power.

Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on "Whoso List to Hunt," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Ellen C. Caldwell

In the following essay, Caldwell gives a critical analysis of Thomas Wyatt's life and work.

No poet represents the complexities of the court of Henry VIII better than Sir Thomas Wyatt. Skilled in international diplomacy, imprisoned without charges, at ease jousting in tournaments, and adept at writing courtly poetry, Wyatt was admired and envied by his contemporaries. The distinction between his public and private life was not always clearly marked, for he spent his life at various courts, where he wrote for a predominantly aristocratic audience who shared common interests. Through and in this milieu he created a new English poetics by experimenting with meter and voice and by grafting Continental and classical forms and ideas to English traditions. Wyatt wrote the first English sonnets and true satires, projecting through them the most important political issues of the period: the Protestant Reformation and the centralization of state power under the reigns of the Tudors. For this combination of formalistic innovation and historical reflection, he is today considered the most important poet of the first half of the sixteenth century. Living and writing dangerously in an era of national and international, religious and secular transformations, Wyatt was the Henrician Renaissance man, and his poetry was the soul of his age.

Wyatt's position, attitudes, character, and fortunes were formed at the courts of the first two Tudor monarchs. One of the most important issues in scholarship on Wyatt remains the relationship between his poetry and his life as a Henrician courtier. With its extensive reproduction of primary sources, the best biography of Wyatt is still Kenneth Muir's Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1963). All letters and documents are quoted from this edition, while all poetry is cited from Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems (1978).

Born around 1503 at Allington Castle in Kent, Thomas was the son of Sir Henry Wyatt of Yorkshire and Anne Skinner Wyatt of Surrey. Imprisoned more than once by Richard III, Sir Henry had become under Henry VII a powerful, wealthy privy councillor, and he remained so after Henry VIII's accession. In 1516 his son Thomas served as an honorary attendant at Princess Mary's christening. John Leland writes that Thomas attended Cambridge, and although there is no record to confirm the statement, it seems plausible that he did. It is often assumed that in 1516 he entered Saint John's College, Cambridge, but his name may have been confused with another Wyatt matriculating there. After marriage to Elizabeth Brooke, daughter of Thomas, Lord Cobham, in 1520 and the birth of a son in 1521, Wyatt progressed in his career at court, as esquire of the king's body and clerk of the king's jewels (1524). He probably acquired these posts through a combination of innate abilities and his father's influence. Stephen Miriam Foley suggests in Sir Thomas Wyatt (1990) that the positions were more significant than their titles might imply, for they helped to entrench him in the king's household. Members of that household sought power, struggling with the king's councillors to influence the king.

Sometime after the birth of his son, perhaps around 1525, Wyatt seems to have become estranged from his wife; all editors and biographers assume the reason to be her infidelity, for such were the rumors during his life. The Spanish Calendar, for instance, gives this detail: "Wyatt had cast [his wife] away on account of adultery." It is certain that in 1526, when Sir Thomas Cheney embarked for the French court on an official delegation, Wyatt accompanied him. There he may have met Clé-ment Marot, whose poetry influenced his own work and whose epigram "Frere Thibault" is copied into the Egerton manuscript of Wyatt's poetry. In 1527 Wyatt asked for and was granted permission to attend Sir John Russell on his legation to Rome. On this journey he became acquainted with Continental political affairs and the methods of persuasive diplomacy, for when Russell was injured, Wyatt accomplished one part of the mission alone. He was briefly imprisoned by Spanish imperial forces, but he and Russell left Rome shortly before it was taken by the emperor's army.

Around 1527 Queen Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, asked Wyatt to translate Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae. Wyatt translated in its place a piece he found less tedious, Guillaume Budé's Latin version of Plutarch's De tranquillitate et securitate animi. It was soon published by Richard Pynson as The Quiet of Mind (1528), and as several scholars have pointed out, the echoes of "quiet mind" in Wyatt's poetry indicate that the piece continued to hold philosophical importance for him. From around 1528 or 1529 to November 1530, Wyatt held the post of high marshal of Calais, and in 1532 he became commissioner of the peace in Essex. From this time forward he was under the patronage of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's secretary and adviser on religious matters, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. In 1533 Wyatt served for his father at the coronation of Anne Boleyn. Although in 1534 he was imprisoned in the Fleet for what was recorded as his involvement in a "great affray" in which a sergeant of London was slain, his rapid success as a courtier dates from this period. Also in 1534 he was given "command of all men able for war in the seven hundreds" and in various parishes of the county of Kent, and license "to have twenty men in his livery." He is thought to have been knighted in 1535. Around 1536 Wyatt formed an attachment to Elizabeth Darrell, who became his mistress for life. Some of his poems, such as "A face that should content me wondrous well" and "So feeble is the thread," almost surely allude to this relationship.

The woman with whom Wyatt has been notoriously associated, however, is Anne Boleyn, second queen of Henry VIII. Careful scholars acknowledge that although Wyatt's poetry is suggestive, the hard evidence for his role as Boleyn's lover, or scorned lover, is so bedeviled by legend and rumor as to affect even the most cautious statements. One poem long considered to allude to Boleyn is the riddle "What word is that that changeth not" (no. 54), for its solution (anna) is penned above the poem in the Egerton manuscript (though not in Wyatt's or the scribe's hand and, it seems, after the poem was copied there.) The third line of the poem puns on the solution: "It is mine answer" (mine Anne, sir). There is nothing, however, to indicate that the poem is about any specific Anne. Although anecdotes have circulated of the rivalry between Wyatt and Henry, it is very difficult and perhaps even impossible to gauge the extent of Wyatt's relationship with Boleyn, especially when Henry decided to divorce Catherine and marry her. Henry's doing so resulted in the Act of Supremacy (1534), whereby he broke from the hegemony of the pope and the Catholic church and proclaimed himself head of the church in England. This move had severe domestic and international consequences, in which Wyatt was implicated.

Although it has been widely debated, a poem historically thought to indicate Wyatt's loss of Boleyn to Henry is the sonnet "Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind" (no. 11). Wyatt altered the original poem, Petrarch's Rime 190, "Una candida cerva sopra l'erba," to center on the "chase," a courtly sport that provides an apt metaphor for the pursuit of love and power at Henry's court, as several scholars have acknowledged. In Wyatt's sonnet the speaker advises other suitors that they may pursue the hind/lady as vainly as he has and give her up with as much difficulty. The poem concludes that the chase should be given over, for the motto on the hind's collar suggests that although she has been claimed by someone more powerful than they, she will not be constrained by anyone:

  And graven with diamonds in letters plain
  There is written her fair neck round about:
  'Noli me tangere for Caesar's I am,
  And wild for to hold though I seem tame.'

Julius Caesar's deer are reported to have worn this motto on their collars. Wyatt's decision to retain the term Caesar from the Italian poem does suggest that the speaker or poet alludes to a royal master with powerful edicts, such as Henry VIII. Although the hind/lady might topically designate any one of several women, it could appropriately refer to Boleyn. To describe a lady of the court as an object of prey, bound by words or laws to a ruler absolute in name if not in reality, is to flatter neither the lady, who is seen to be promiscuous or at least willful, nor "Caesar," who is seen to be unsuccessful in his attempt to "own" her with his inscription. In another sonnet also thought to refer to Boleyn in her role as court star, reformer, and the catalyst behind Henry's divorce, "If waker care, if sudden pale color" (no. 28), the speaker claims he has replaced his former love with another. The poem is found in the Egerton manuscript, where the line "Her that did set our country in a roar," so suggestive of Boleyn, has been revised, in Wyatt's hand, to "Brunet that set my wealth in such a roar."

The execution of Boleyn and her alleged lovers is one of the more sordid episodes of Henry's turbulent reign and has attracted a great deal of prurient interest. The episode does, however, indicate the violence attendant upon the very structure of dynastic succession and illustrates the instability of fortunes in a Renaissance court. Readers should consult the most reliable biographies and remember that theories about Wyatt's attachment to Boleyn involve the consideration not only of his life but also of the very densely recorded lives of Henry VIII and Boleyn. In 1536 Wyatt was arrested a few days after the arrests of Anne and five men alleged to have been her lovers. Most speculations about his relationship with Anne center on his arrest and imprisonment at this time. Muir gives three independent, sixteenth-century accounts, all of uncertain authority, which claim that before Henry married Boleyn, Wyatt told either Henry or his Council that she was not fit to become queen because she had been Wyatt's lover; but Muir adds that these anecdotes could have been devised to explain why Wyatt was not executed with the five men accused of adultery. Whatever the actions of Anne may have been, after she gave birth to Princess Elizabeth and then miscarried a second child, she lost Henry's favor; desperate for a male heir, he had already begun to look for her replacement. Cromwell is said to have instigated a plot to remove her by accusing her of adultery and therefore treason. A court musician, Mark Smeaton, was tortured and produced the names of four other men, some of them Wyatt's friends. Anne's brother, Thomas Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, was charged with incest, and Henry himself claimed that "more than a hundred had to do with her." There were no official charges against Wyatt, who in 1541 declared that his court enemy, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, was responsible: "My Lord of Suffolk himself can tell that I imputed it to him, and not only at the beginning but even the very night before my apprehension now last." A letter of petition from Wyatt's father to Cromwell does not reveal the nature of the charges beyond "the displeasure that [Wyatt] hath done to god otherwise."

One poem that seems to date from this period of imprisonment (no. 123) is headed V. Innocentia / Veritas Viat Fides / Circumdederunt me inimici mei. If one accepts that Viat indicates Wyatt, then the heading reads, "Innocence, Truth, Wyatt, Faith; my enemies have surrounded me." Editors have suggested that innocence, truth, and faith "surround" Wyatt's name in contradistinction to his enemies. The speaker asks that anyone "Who list his wealth and ease retain" should strive to live a private life, for there is danger, or "thunder," around seats of power. The refrain of the poem is circa Regna tonat, a phrase from Seneca's Phaedra, in which Jupiter "thunders about thrones." The opening line of the third stanza, "These bloody days have broken my heart," may refer to the fall of Anne and her courtiers. Even more powerful is the image Wyatt paints of the speaker in his cell, witnessing through its window grating what may have been Anne's execution:

  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 favor, glory, or might,
  That yet circa Regna tonat.

In the last stanza the speaker learns that the wit to plead one's case or one's innocence is not always useful. This poem does not apologize for the speaker's conduct or his situation or the system in which he must live; rather, it vividly demonstrates the well-known fact that proximity to the king could be fatal. An elegy for Anne's putative lovers, "In mourning wise since daily I increase" (no. 197) is also dated to this period. The poem devotes a stanza to each man executed, naming him (Lord Rochford, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton, and Smeaton), acknowledging his guilt, yet mourning his death. This poem, which appears in one manuscript only, has not always been attributed to Wyatt.

After the executions of Anne and her alleged lovers, Wyatt was soon restored to favor, made sheriff of Kent, and asked to muster men and to attend on Henry VIII. In November 1536 his father died, and in 1537 he once again undertook a diplomatic mission, this time as ambassador to the court of Emperor Charles V. On his journey Wyatt wrote to his son, advising him to emulate the exemplary life of Sir Henry Wyatt rather than Wyatt's own: "And of myself I may be a near example unto you of my folly and unthriftness that hath as I well deserved brought me into a thousand dangers and hazards, enmities, hatreds, prisonments, despites, and indignations." He further admonished his son to "make God and goodness" his "foundations." An epigram in Wyatt's hand in the Egerton manuscript, "Of Carthage he, that worthy warrior," ends with a reference to Spain: "At Monzòn thus I restless rest in Spain" (no. 46). Henry VIII wished to prevent Charles V from forming what would amount to a Catholic alliance with Francis I and thus to prevent a concerted attack on England. Wyatt returned home in mid 1538; but when Charles and Francis, without Henry, reached a separate accord at Nice, the danger of an attack against England grew more grave. Wyatt's poem in ottava rima, "Tagus, farewell" (no. 60), probably dates from this period. With this poem, as with the letter to his son, scholars have tried to establish Wyatt's character. Despite his sufferings and despite his criticisms of the king and his court, he was a loyal servant to Henry VIII. In the last lines the speaker looks forward to returning to London: "My king, my country, alone for whom I live, / Of mighty love the wings for this me give."

Once more ambassador to the emperor in 1539, Wyatt was to watch his movements through France and to ascertain his intentions regarding England. But by mid 1540, after Henry VIII's marriage to Anne of Cleves threatened to create a Protestant league, and in the event of growing distrust between Charles and Francis, the danger of an attack against England was no longer imminent, so Wyatt returned home. On 28 July his patron, Cromwell, was executed. Historians attribute Cromwell's fall in part to factional resistance to his foreign and religious policies and in part to Henry's severe dislike of Anne of Cleves. He had married her sight unseen and claimed that descriptions of her beauty were untrue (historian John Guy notes that he called her "the Flanders mare"). An account found in the Spanish chronicle claims that at the execution Cromwell asked Wyatt to pray for him but that Wyatt was so overcome by tears he could not speak. It is thought that the sonnet Richard Tottel entitles "The lover laments the death of his love" refers instead to Wyatt's loss of his friend and patron, for it imitates Petrarch's Rime 269, "Rotta è l'alta colonna e 'l verde lauro," an elegy on the occasion of his patron's death, as well as the death of Laura. Wyatt's poem (no. 29) begins:

  The pillar perished is whereto I leant,
  The strongest stay of mine unquiet mind;
  The like of it no man again can find—
  From east to west still seeking though he went.

The "pillar" could easily designate Cromwell. The reference to an "unquiet mind" echoes Wyatt's translation of Plutarch and suggests an attempt to find some sort of relief from the uncertainties of life under Henry VIII. Cromwell's papers were investigated after his execution, and in 1541 Wyatt was arrested and imprisoned on the weight of old allegations that he had met with the traitor Reginald Pole and had otherwise misrepresented the king's interests. Wyatt had been cleared of those charges in 1538, but Cromwell's death left him open to further attack from his court enemies.

A poem addressed to Sir Francis Brian (no. 62) has traditionally been dated to this last period of incarceration:

  Sighs are my food, drink are my tears;
  Clinking of fetters such music would crave.
  Stink and close air away my life wears.
  Innocency is all the hope I have.

Besides its graphic depiction of the speaker's suffering and humiliation—"this wound shall heal again / But yet, alas, the scar shall still remain"—this poem echoes "Who list his wealth and ease retain" in its claim of the speaker's innocence. Wyatt had in 1536 suffered imprisonment in the Tower and, if scholarly dating is correct, had written of it. "Sighs are my food," though shorter, is more bitter in tone than the earlier poem. When commanded to answer in writing the accusations against him, Wyatt provided a declaration of his innocence. He insisted that "for my part I declare affirmingly, at all proofs whereby a Christian man may be tried, that in my life in crime toward the Majesty of the King my master or any his issue, in deed, word, writing or wish I never offended, I never committed malice or offense, or (as I have presently said before you) done thing wherein my thought could accuse my conscience." He then prepared a lengthy, sharply worded defense of his actions, turning the case against his accusers. At its end he declares: "Thus much I thought to say unto you afore both God and man to discharge me, that I seem not to perish in my own fault, for lack of declaring my truth; and afore God and all these men I charge you with my innocent truth that in case, as God defend, you be guilty of mine innocent blood, that you before his tribunal shall be inexcusable." No evidence of a trial survives; but the Privy Council later mentioned Wyatt's confession and pardon, both of which may have been wrought from this defense. At the time, the pardon was believed to have been urged by Queen Catherine Howard and to have rested on the removal of Elizabeth Darrell and the reinstatement of Wyatt's wife. In 1541 Wyatt made his will, providing for Darrell and their son, Francis, and for his legitimate son, Thomas. There are indications that Wyatt was restored to favor, for later in 1541 he received some of the awards of Thomas Culpepper, who was charged with adultery with Queen Catherine Howard, and made an advantageous exchange of property with Henry VIII. Early in 1542 Wyatt was probably member of Parliament for Kent, and it is possible that he was to be made vice admiral of a fleet. On 11 October 1542, on his way to Falmouth to meet and escort to London the Spanish envoy, he died of a fever at the home of Sir John Horsey at Sherborne in Dorset.

It is clear, then, that although the records of Wyatt's life are not always reliable, they are numerous. Besides details in official records, in foreign chronicles, letters, and memoirs, there are letters in his hand, which help to establish his own concerns as a courtier and the demands placed on him by others. His letters to Cromwell and the king reveal a command of detail and dialogue as well as a sensitivity to delicate national and international issues. The two letters to his son have long been used to establish Wyatt's forthright character. His defense in 1541 demonstrates his acuity and his ability to outmaneuver his enemies. For Wyatt's poetry perhaps the most salient features of his life are his worldliness and his wavering fortunes as a courtier. Despite his imprisonments, which must surely have made him aware of the precariousness of his position, Wyatt remained a courtier and accepted diplomatic missions. Those years as ambassador must also have made him aware that diplomacy is a game of negotiation and refusal, that international alliances are quickly and of necessity broken with the changing expectations of new governments and the shifting needs of the state or the monarch. Wyatt's courtly poetry, then, transcribes, whether explicitly or obliquely, his life as a courtier.

Every aspect of Wyatt's poetry has been widely debated: the canon, the texts, the prosody, the occasion, the personae or voices, the significance of French and Italian influences, and the representation of court life. Wyatt's poems circulated widely among various members of Henry's court, and some may first have been published in a miscellany or verse anthology, The Court of Venus, of which three fragments survive. They were edited in 1955 by Russell A. Fraser, who dates the first fragment (Douce) to 1535–1539, the second (Stark) to 1547–1549, and the third (Folger) to 1561–1564, the subtitle of the Stark fragment running A Book of Ballets. Five of the poems in these fragments are Wyatt's, and others are thought to be his as well. The Douce fragment is, in fact, the earliest known printed miscellany in England. By far the most important of the miscellanies, however, is that compiled and edited in 1557 by Tottel: Songs and Sonnets, better known as Tottel's Miscellany. This collection of various verse forms and types, from the sonnet to satire, went through at least nine editions in thirty years. Intended to honor and represent "English eloquence," it is arranged by author, Wyatt being the best represented. Tottel or his editors exercised a great deal of license in altering Wyatt's poetry, omitting lines, rearranging the poems to resemble sonnets, regularizing the meter, smoothing out the irony, and giving them titles that prescribe their meanings. This collection includes about one-third of Wyatt's canon, concentrating on his lyrics and his adaptations from Italian sources, such as Petrarch and Serafino d'Aquilano. It is clear that Tottel thought this collection to represent the best of the courtly tradition and the best of Continental imitations, and although it is uneven in quality, it remains one of the most important publications of the sixteenth century.

Since Tottel's 1557 Miscellany, Wyatt's name has been coupled with that of a younger poet, another translator of Petrarch: Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The work of both poets is presented by Tottel, but Wyatt's metrical forms, rugged and experimental in the manuscripts, have been regularized into more-fluid and more-recognizably iambic-pentameter lines. Through George F. Nott's edition (1816) of the poems from manuscripts, it became apparent that Tottel had altered the poems, and Wyatt's prosody began to be studied independently of Surrey's. Wyatt both experiments with metrical forms and writes poems in various recognizable meters, but there is much disagreement over his facility in writing iambic pentameter. One view is that in his difficult lines the four-stress pull of the Anglo-Saxon line competes with pentameter. A common opinion in the twentieth century, however, is that although these lines are basically iambic pentameter, the language wrenches the meter to produce a more forceful and expressive line. For three centuries Surrey was generally considered the more aristocratic, harmonious, and therefore superior poet; but in recent times Wyatt has been judged the more individualistic, original, and complex of the two.

Despite the significance of Tottel's Miscellany as an influential text for later poets of the sixteenth century, any serious discussion of Wyatt's poetry must be grounded in his work as it is preserved in various manuscripts. The primary manuscript, British Library Egerton 2711, has been treated almost as if it were an "edition" of the poems, for it was certainly Wyatt's own book and contains poems in several hands, including his own, as can be ascertained from his autograph letters. It also contains poems with corrections and alterations (some in his hand) and some poems ascribed to him by the markers "Tho" or "Wyat." Several theories have been advanced to account for the chronology of the poems in this manuscript, but no firm conclusions have been reached. The poems need not have been copied in the order they were composed, and although a few can be dated, most editors do not think that poems following those datable were necessarily composed after them. One glance at the Egerton manuscript reveals some of the obstacles in deciding the texts of the poems: they are written in several hands and different inks, and the manuscript is scribbled over, having served its later owners as a commonplace book and calculation sheet. Peter Beal (1980) states that Egerton features copies of 107 poems by Wyatt, his paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms, two letters to his son (not in his hand), and three other poems that are not his. The first poem in the manuscript, "Behold, Love, thy power how she despiseth," imitates a poem by Petrarch. The poems in Wyatt's handwriting include "Of Carthage he, that worthy warrior," "Tagus, farewell," and "What rage is this?" Some of Wyatt's better-known poems in this manuscript, although not in his hand, are "The long love that in my thought doth harbor," "Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind," "Farewell, Love, and all thy laws forever," "I find no peace and all my war is done," "My galley charged with forgetfulness," "They flee from me that sometime did me seek," "My mother's maids," and "A spending hand."

While Egerton is acknowledged to be the primary manuscript of Wyatt's poetry, the significance of the Blage, Devonshire, and Arundel Harington manuscripts, to mention only the major ones, in determining Wyatt's canon is contested. The 1969 Muir-Thomson edition of the poems may have conflated the canon by including doubtful poems from these manuscripts. The Blage manuscript, compiled during the 1530s and 1540s and once owned by Wyatt's close friend Sir George Blage, is a collection of various types of poems, eighty-five of which have been attributed to Wyatt. It circulated among members of the court and, according to Ronald A. Rebholz, presents "versions" of poems earlier than those in Egerton. He claims the same dating for the Devonshire manuscript, also a verse collection, which circulated especially among members of the Howard family and which contains the largest collection of Wyatt's love lyrics. The poems in Devonshire, 122 of which have been attributed to Wyatt, are written in the hands of Margaret Howard, Mary Fitzroy (Surrey's sister), and Mary Shelton. The Arundel Harington manuscript, yet another verse miscellany, was written by or for John Harington and is generally considered later than the Egerton. It contains the Penitential Psalms plus fifty-five other poems that have been attributed to Wyatt.

Although the canon is to this day disputed, it has in the past generally been decided with the following logic and hierarchy, according to Rebholz: certainly canonical are those Egerton poems in Wyatt's hand; those Egerton poems in the hand of a scribe but corrected in Wyatt's hand; those Egerton poems in various hands but designated "Tho." or "Tho"; those Egerton poems in various hands but designated "Wyat"; and those ninety-seven poems attributed to Wyatt by Tottel, fifteen without manuscript sources. Less certainly canonical are those poems found in Blage, Devonshire, or Arundel Harington, among poems known to be Wyatt's or ascribed to him. The extent of the controversy over canonical and textual problems is best illustrated by the fact that since 1969 four independent editions of the poems and one book-length critique of one of those editions have been published. While the Muir-Thomson Collected Poems (1969), with its lengthy notes and full texts of many original sources, is still considered to be the standard edition, Rebholz's Complete Poems (1978) is often cited as standard because of its accuracy in transcription, its modern spelling, and its comprehensive notes. The Oxford edition by Joost Daalder (1975) is also well regarded. H. A. Mason's Editing Wyatt (1972) prints tables of errors in transcriptions for the Muir-Thomson edition. Editors of Wyatt differ sharply over editorial principles and the hierarchy of the manuscripts, one of the most serious debates being whether, given various and varied copies, the poems should be transcribed or reconstructed, and on what grounds (for instance, metrical and stylistic) emendation should proceed.

Dating the poetry also raises serious problems. Editors can place a few poems with some degree of accuracy, according either to the dates of their sources or to genuine allusions to topical events. For example, the three epistolary satires were composed after 1532–1533, the publication date of the Opere Toscane, by Luigi Alamanni, whose tenth satire provides the source for Wyatt's "Mine own John Poyntz" and, it is thought, the terza-rima form for his three satires and his paraphrases of the Penitential Psalms. A few poems contain references to Spain, which date them during or after Wyatt's visit there from 1537 to 1539.

In most of his poetry Wyatt worked both with English models, notably Geoffrey Chaucer, and Continental sources. This combination gives his poems their peculiar characteristic of following the conventions of amour courtois yet implicitly rejecting those conventions at the same time. His canon falls into two subgenres: courtly poetry and religious poetry. The courtly poetry may be divided, with some difficulty, between the love poems and the satiric poems. The love poetry predominates and includes work in several forms, such as sonnets, epigrams, and what have traditionally been called songs. Many of Wyatt's Petrarchan sources had been set to music by the early sixteenth century, but recent scholars have doubted whether he wrote his poems for musical accompaniment.

Since the publication of Raymond Southall's The Courtly Maker: An Essay on the Poetry of Wyatt and His Contemporaries (1964), most scholars have recognized the importance of the "courtly" context for Wyatt's oeuvre. According to Southall, the love complaints, besides being personal expressions of love or pain, may also be stylized verses designed to win the favor of court ladies who could offer political advancement to a courtier. Southall notes that many of Wyatt's poems repeatedly stress the insecurity of a man's fortunes, an attitude consistent with the realities of court life. Others have suggested that love poetry masks the pursuit of power at court, and it now seems clear that Wyatt's metaphors serve a double purpose. This courtly context has been filled in by historicist scholars, who have more thoroughly explored the role-playing, submission to authority, and engaging in intrigue required for success at Henry VIII's court.

In the love lyrics, or "amorous" poetry, the lover complains of lost or unrequited love and begs the beloved for favor or mercy, as in the Egerton poem of four stanzas, corrected in Wyatt's hand (no. 106):

  Though I cannot your cruelty constrain
  For my goodwill to favor me again,
  Though my true and faithful love
  Have no power your heart to move, Yet rue upon my pain.

The same complaint, with variation and in several verse forms, may be found in many of Wyatt's poems. In the following doubled sonnet (no. 34), the lover's pain of rejection is expressed by his tears, sighs, moans, and, of course, his love poetry:

  The flaming sighs that boil within my breast
  Sometime break forth and they can well declare
  The heart's unrest and how that it doth fare,
  The pain thereof, the grief, and all the rest.

The eloquence of these sighs and complaints is counterbalanced by the pain they cause the lover. In much of Wyatt's love poetry, it is characteristic for the lover to protest his loyalty despite all odds against him and, further, despite the beloved's scorn and rejection of his suit, as here (no. 110):

  I have sought long with steadfastness
  To have had some ease of my great smart
  But naught availeth faithfulness
  To grave within your stony heart.

Although these courtly love poems lament personal loss or suffering, they take on added meaning read in the light of Southall's claim that such lyrics were often addressed to women of rank who could offer a courtier advancement. Southall notes that the vocabulary of Wyatt's love poetry often includes words that recall the patron/client relationship: service, desert, suit, hope, reward, promise, fortune, grant—a vocabulary suggesting that the dependency of the underling parallels the dependency of the lover. In a canzone that again boasts of the lover's steadfastness (no. 78), the refrain claims that the lover will "serve" the beloved, despite his "reward" of cruelty:

  Though for goodwill I find but hate
  And cruelty my life to waste
  And though that still a wretched state
  Should pine my days unto the last,
  Yet I profess it willingly
  To serve and suffer patiently.

This attitude of resignation, though traditional in courtly love poetry, has been seen by many scholars over the centuries as unseemly, and the poems themselves as slight. Read in the context of competition for preferment at court, for offices and awards, or for access to them, the poems reveal the courtier's relative lack of power. In the sonnet "My heart I gave thee, not to do it pain" (no. 14), the language of courtly love is barely distinguishable from the language of aristocratic patronage. The lover admits that he has entered a servant/mistress relationship, in which he expects to be remunerated for faithful service:

  I served thee, not to be forsaken,
  But that I should be rewarded again.
  I was content thy servant to remain
  But not to be paid under this fashion.

The speaker is so frustrated by his treatment that he rejects the lady as she has rejected him, acknowledging the hopelessness of receiving any gain for his service to her. In this and other love poems, Wyatt is distinguished by expressing anger over losing what he sees as his due by right and in questioning the codes of courtly love. This anger and contempt find their most sustained outlet in his satires of court life.

One of Wyatt's greatest poetic achievements is his adaptation of the sonnet form into English. Although he has been criticized by modern scholars for imitating the self-conscious conceits (extended comparisons) and oxymora (oppositions such as "ice / fire") of his sources, such language and sentiments would have found an appreciative audience at the time. A clear example of this type of sonnet is his translation of Petrarch's Rime 134, "Pace non trovo e non ho da far guerra." Wyatt's poem (no. 17) begins:

  I find no peace and all my war is done.
  I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice.
  I fly above the wind yet can I not arise.
  And naught I have and all the world I seize on.

Each succeeding line expresses a contradiction in the lover's situation: he feels both freedom and constraint; he wishes both life and death; he is both blind and seeing, mute and complaining, loving another and hating himself, sorrowful and joyful. The last line of this poem is typical of Wyatt in indicating that such internal divisions derive from the beloved: his "delight is causer of this strife."

Leonard Forster, in The Icy Fire: Five Studies in European Petrarchism (1969), reasons that because such devices are highly rhetorical and easily imitable, early English poets imitated them. Most of Wyatt's adaptations, however, express a highly dramatic situation and seem the overwrought outpourings of severe and personal pain, not the static result of artifice. Thus, even close translations often result in original beauty. Although it has not always been appreciated, an often-anthologized and haunting sonnet is "My galley charged with forgetfulness" (no. 19), a translation of Petrarch's Rime 189, "Passa la nave mia colma d'oblio." Here the comparison the speaker makes between a ship and love is not merely an exercise in sustained allegory but with its unexpected phrases and halting meter—"Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass"—expresses the lover's inability to recover from his loss. The cause of his suffering is described with effective simplicity—"The stars be hid that led me to this pain"—and the couplet evokes a sense of true despair, for the lover knows he is beyond recovery precisely because love is not rational: "Drowned is reason that should me comfort / And I remain despairing of the port."

Perennially fascinated by Wyatt's use of French and Italian sources, scholars have continued to debate the significance of his Petrarchism. There is scholarly concern over what is meant by translation; Wyatt's tendency to imitate rather than transliterate has been widely discussed. Some take it as an indication that he adopted the principles for translation that Continental poets themselves used in turning classical poetry into the vernacular; therefore, Wyatt brought Renaissance humanism to England. Some scholars argue that he translated the Italian texts into an essentially English context or that he personalized that context, while others argue that many of the translations falter.

By far the most widely held view is that when Wyatt's poetry defies the beloved and denounces the game of love, or rejects the devotion to love found in his models, it approaches the anti-Petrarchism of the sort evident later in Elizabethan poetry. His sonnet beginning "Was I never yet of your love grieved / Nor never shall while that my life doth last" (no. 12), a translation of Petrarch's Rime 82, "Io non fu' d' amar voi lassato unqu' anco," declares that "of hating myself that date is past" and ends with the lines that project the speaker's disdain:

  If otherwise ye seek for to fulfill
  Your disdain, ye err and shall not as ye ween,
  And ye yourself the cause thereof hath been.

If this frustration of the beloved's satisfaction seems vengeful and petty, one must remember that it is bred by a system that seems arbitrary in its delegation of power and responsibility but is in fact closed and dependent on personal loyalties.

A sonnet often cited as an example of Wyatt's anti-Petrarchism is one for which no source has yet been found, "Farewell, Love, and all thy laws forever" (no. 31). As the first line indicates, the speaker has renounced love; he will replace it with the philosophy of Seneca and Plato and adopt a more Stoic attitude toward love. He decides to set no more store by such "trifles" and bids love "Go trouble younger hearts." The rejection of love as a waste of one's time and a sure means to suffer is complete in the couplet: "For hitherto though I have lost all my time, / Me lusteth no longer rotten boughs to climb." A similar theme is sounded in another poem whose source is likewise unknown, "There was never file half so well filed" (no. 32). Here the speaker intends to abandon the passion or "folly" of youthful love for the "reason" of maturity. Expressing regret for wasted time and wasted trust, the poem ends by claiming that one who deceives should not complain of being deceived in return but should receive the "reward" of "little trust forever." Both these poems are more severely critical views of the artificiality and duplicity of courtly life than the one to be found in a translation such as "I find no peace and all my war is done"; and yet its juxtapositions of opposites may also indicate the underlying insecurity of that life.

Some of Wyatt's sourceless poems that are not sonnets, such as "My lute, awake" (no. 109), also convey a markedly anti-Petrarchan attitude. The several copies of this eight-stanza song, including those in the Stark and Folger fragments of The Court of Venus, suggest the extent of its popularity. It begins with the standard lover's complaint but then abandons the courtly love game and pronounces what amounts to a curse on the beloved:

  Vengeance shall fall on thy disdain
  That makest but game on earnest pain.
  Think not alone under the sun
  Unquit to cause thy lovers plain
  Although my lute and I have done.
  May chance thee lie withered and old
  The winter nights that are so cold,
  Plaining in vain unto the moon.
  Thy wishes then dare not be told
  Care then who list for I have done.

It is unclear whether the poem's bitter tone is a projection by Wyatt or by the speaker; and although its message may be traditional, it is a stark reminder of the importance of youth in Henry's court. These poems have an edge to them that jars with the very concept of courtly love poetry but that matches the tone of traditional court satire from other sources, including earlier English poets. This rejection or theme of lost beauty is carried to a misogynistic extreme in another of Wyatt's better-known poems, "Ye old mule" (no. 7). Here the faded beauty is compared to a worn-out beast of burden: she can no longer choose her lovers but must buy what is available.

In these and later anti-Petrarchan poems in English, the lover's pain is blamed on the beloved's artifice, guile, deceit, dissembling, fickleness, and hard-heartedness; in Wyatt's poems the lover's constancy is repeatedly compared to the beloved's lack of faith. In "Thou hast no faith of him that hath none" (no. 6), the lover, rather than begging for mercy or favor, is angered at having been betrayed:

  I thought thee true without exception.
  But I perceive I lacked discretion
  To fashion faith to words mutable:
  Thy thought is too light and variable.
  To change so oft without occasion, Thou hast no faith.

Many of Wyatt's poems treat mutability as an undesirable characteristic for a lover, a servant, a patron, or a king; changefulness or betrayal is his common theme. It is not always clear, however, whether in these poems Wyatt speaks in his own voice or creates various personae. Some of the poems project a great deal of venom over personal and political events and seem to reveal an intelligent courtier struggling to define himself against a political structure he both criticizes and enjoys. Some scholars thus see Wyatt as a rebellious figure in a corrupt and corrupting system; others see him as hopelessly caught in that system and its dynastic concerns.

The poem that best illustrates these issues is "They flee from me" (no. 80), which combines eroticism with a contempt for the beloved's changefulness. This three-stanza poem, or ballade, moves between dreaming and waking, fantastic and realistic states of consciousness. It owes something to the amorous poetry of Ovid, perhaps something to Petrarch's sonnets, and much to Chaucer. The poem opens with the speaker remembering former love(s): "They flee from me that sometime did me seek / With naked foot stalking in my chamber." The poem's first few lines recall "Whoso list to hunt" in claiming that those who once sought the speaker were tamed but "now are wild"; further, "now they range / Busily seeking with a continual change" that the speaker finds problematic. In the second stanza the speaker recalls a time when the beloved caught him in her arms, kissed him, and asked, "'Dear heart, how like you this?'" The poem shifts abruptly to the present and to reality: "It was no dream: I lay broad waking." Despite the lover's "gentleness" or "gentility," he has been rejected, and his loss leaves him, if not vengeful, at least sardonic:

  And I have leave to go of her goodness
  And she also to use newfangleness.
  But since that I so kindly am served
  I would fain know what she hath deserved.

"They flee from me," a poem of betrayal and remembrance, may be the definitive expression of Wyatt's attitude toward courtly love: it is a game that can cause real pain, and one in which the players are only half-aware of their own complicity.

Wyatt's Italian sources range beyond Petrarch. The epigrams, many of them based on the strambotti of Serafino d'Aquilano, also comment on the uncertainties of court life. Several are written in ottava rima, and many, like some of the classical epigrams of Martial, are biting. In a court where "none is worse than is a friendly foe" (no. 52), dissembling is common: "But well to say and so to mean—/ That sweet accord is seldom seen" (no. 70). In "Lucks, my fair falcon" (no. 68), a poem most editors date to the period of Cromwell's execution and Wyatt's second imprisonment in the Tower, the speaker notes that he has few friends in adversity. In fact, some of the epigrams do mark Wyatt as a Stoic, such as the translation from Seneca's Thyestes, which describes the court as a dangerous and even foul place (no. 49):

  Stand whoso list upon the slipper top
  Of court's estates, and let me here rejoice
  And use me quiet without let or stop,
  Unknown in court that hath such brackish joys.

The poem suggests that life at court is uncertain if not dangerous, and again the word quiet marks the speaker's anxiety. While one must remember that anticourt satire is conventional, Wyatt's descriptions in this poem go beyond the original: Rebholz notes that "brackish joys" is Wyatt's own addition to Seneca's Latin. The speaker asks to be allowed to live away from the court and die among common men, for those who are well known often die ignominious deaths: "That is much known of other, and of himself, alas, / Doth die unknown, dazed, with dreadful face." The last phrase, again Wyatt's own addition, personalizes the translation. The common thread running through Wyatt's poetry—that the glitter of court life has a darker side, that court service has a "bitter taste" (no. 71)—is congruent with his experiences as a courtier.

Wyatt's most sustained and effective criticism of the court is to be found in what are commonly known as his "epistolary satires." Once again their immediate source is Italian, but their tone is definitely Horatian, thus marking them as humanist pieces. Although there is a known point after which the poems must have been written—the publication date of Alamanni's Opere Toscane, the source of the first satire—scholars disagree on the date of their composition in relation to the Penitential Psalms. In the first satire, "Mine own John Poyntz" (no. 149), addressed to a friend of Wyatt, the speaker explains that because he cannot meet the courtly requirements of duplicity, dissembling, and fraud, he has withdrawn to the country. The hundred-plus-line poem begins with a disclaimer: the speaker does not mock those whom Fortune has made rulers. Although the speaker at one time sought glory, he cannot now obtain it because he is unable to lie, to praise those who do not deserve it, to honor those who prey on others, to dissemble, to call deceit strategy, to gain profit from bending laws, to say that people have accomplishments that they have not, to cloak vice with virtue, to claim "tyranny / To be the right of a prince's reign," or to seem rather than to be. Rebholz notes that the polished Italian is often translated into homespun English proverbs, as if to underscore the speaker's inability to frame fair words to foul practices. Many scholars date this poem to the period of Wyatt's enforced exile in Kent in 1536; some argue that if he could, the speaker, whom they read as Wyatt, would be in the midst of that court, despite its demands and dangers, for he valued the active life.

The second satire, "My mother's maids" (no. 150), retells Aesop's fable of the country mouse and the city mouse, a story Wyatt could have taken from many sources, including Horace. Wyatt's version differs radically from most others in which the city mouse tempts the country mouse by describing the splendors of city life, criticizing country life, and inviting her to the city. The country mouse, after tasting the dangers of city life, returns home convinced of her error. Wyatt's country mouse, however, is described as living in desperate and destitute conditions, which she herself attempts to better by visiting her sister. This city mouse is frightened by the very noise the country mouse makes on her arrival. When a cat attacks the two mice, the city mouse escapes, but the country mouse is restrained by the cat and perhaps killed. The satire then offers a long moral on the best means to attain "quiet of mind," for "each kind of life hath with him his disease." The speaker counsels contentment with one's allotted life:

  Then seek no more out of thyself to find
    The thing that thou hast sought so long before,
    For thou shalt feel it sitting in thy mind.

The poem's attitude of mental resignation to adversity is consistent with Wyatt's Stoicism. The poem ends with characteristic Wyattian disdain at those who stray from Virtue (here personified); the speaker hopes they will look behind them and "fret inward for losing such a loss."

Wyatt's third satire, "A spending hand" (no. 151), is a dialogue between the speaker and Sir Francis Brian, a courtier whom the speaker cynically advises to adopt the methods of flattery and fraud to obtain riches. Brian should learn to fawn, for then he "shall purchase friends where truth shall but offend." His best strategy is to seek out a rich old man to cozen; but if this does not work, he may marry the man's rich widow, no matter how old and unpleasant she might be, and still sleep with whom he pleases. To further his profit he may pander his own female relatives to his superiors. In the poem Brian ignores this advice, this "thrifty jest," because it would compromise his honor, and thus he seems to be the poem's ideal, although scholars have continued to debate Brian's historical appropriateness as an ideal. The poem, modeled roughly on Horace's Satire 2.5, takes on a life of its own, using proverbs, of which Brian was a collector, and examples appropriate to Henry's court. (Wyatt once lent money to Brian, but the extent or nature of their relationship is unknown.)

Although many have argued that Wyatt's Penitential Psalms were written before his satires (considered the better poems), the psalms deserve attention apart from the courtly poetry in part because they help to establish Wyatt as a poet of the Reformation. They are also written and corrected in his hand in Egerton, thus providing editors with an unparalleled instance of the poet at work. Published in 1549, the poems were composed sometime after the publication date of their most important sources: the paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms by Pietro Aretino (1534), another paraphrase by Joannis Campensis (1532), printed again in 1533 with a Latin translation by Ulrich Zwingli, and English translations of the latter two in 1534 and 1535. The Vulgate is evident in Wyatt's version, and paraphrases by other writers have also been cited as minor sources. The seven Penitential Psalms, used as a group in the medieval church, center on King David's repentance, after his denunciation by Nathan, for sending Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, to his death in battle. Wyatt, following Aretino's paraphrase, provides a prologue and narrative sequences between the psalms.

As with Wyatt's other poems, there is controversy over the date and meanings of these paraphrases. Some scholars link them to his 1536 or 1541 imprisonment. Others see the poems as unconnected to Wyatt's biography; instead, they are a psychological drama in which David does or does not progress. Several scholars think Wyatt's deviation from his sources may indicate his intention to present David as a "Reformed Christian," whose despair and suffering lead to permanent penitence. Or, the poems may constitute a transcription of Henry VIII into God the absolute ruler, who demands and obtains the complete submission of his "servant" (no. 152), or into David himself, whose adultery has brought hardships to the kingdom; David may also be read as a figure for Wyatt, whose poems acknowledge his own complicity, as psalmist, in the situation he describes. Wyatt seems to have been capable of projecting whatever persona he wished, but he was not blind to the political, national, and personal politics of the Reformation in England: neither should be the interpreters of his religious poetry. The prologue begins as an amorous poem in which David desires Bathsheba and sends Uriah to his death. After his crime is discovered, David removes himself to a cave, takes up his harp, and sings. The paraphrases explore themes common to all Wyatt's poetry: betrayal, loyalty, truth, submission, and particularly "the chastisings of sin … that never suffer rest unto the mind" (no. 152).

Those who wish to study Wyatt beyond his poems might begin by reading his letters, edited by Muir (1963). Wyatt's critical fortunes should also be explored through Patricia Thomson's Wyatt: The Critical Heritage (1974). This book begins with the preface to the first edition of The Quiet of Mind (1528) and ends with an excerpt from C. S. Lewis, who named Wyatt the father of Drab (as opposed to Golden) Age verse and who made the famous pronouncement that "poor Wyatt seems to be always in love with women he dislikes." In 1542 John Leland published a set of elegies extravagant in their praise of Wyatt's eloquence and forthright character. His paraphrases of the Penitential Psalms were highly regarded in the sixteenth century and, after the publication of Tottel's Miscellany, so were his courtly poems. In the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, Wyatt and other writers of Henry VIII's reign were eclipsed by the Elizabethans and later poets; when he again received critical attention, by Thomas Warton in 1781, it was as a satirist of "spirited and manly reflections," not a love poet, that he was admired. Nott first used Wyatt's manuscripts to edit the poetry and, although he is somewhat more generous, comes to much the same conclusions as Warton—that Surrey, the nobleman, is the better poet. Not until E. M. W. Tillyard published his edition in 1929 were the lyrics appreciated, and then because they represented what has come to be known as "the native English tradition." Wyatt's Petrarchan translations and imitations have not, since the sixteenth century, been generally admired, even by those who have studied the sources. H. A. Mason, in much of his work, has insisted that Wyatt is best in his "serious" poetry, especially the satires. Since Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980), most critical attention afforded Wyatt has been linked, once again, to his biography, to his struggle not merely to survive but to succeed as a courtier in a social order under stress. The latest study, Foley's excellent Sir Thomas Wyatt (1990), continues in this vein.

Until recently many critics have found it instructive to return to the first literary biographies of Wyatt, to learn from his contemporaries what they thought admirable about him. One of his earliest literary biographers was Surrey, whose reputation has fallen not only because he is now considered to be a more facile and less ambiguous poet than Wyatt, but also, perhaps, because he was an aristocrat whose family was involved in court intrigues throughout Henry's reign. Unlike Wyatt, Surrey was executed by his king; one might therefore expect to find in the work of the poet who managed not to be executed, despite his imprisonments and expected death, greater ambiguities than one finds in the work of the poet who was killed. In one of his poems on the occasion of Wyatt's death, "Wyatt resteth here, that quick could never rest," Surrey writes a blason, or stylized description of various parts of the body, in which he extols Wyatt's virtues and denounces his enemies; he also explains the conditions under which Wyatt wrote and the value of the work he produced. While the elegy is conventionally epideictic, praising its subject and blaming his detractors, it is clear that Wyatt saw his world in terms of this duality, both in his poems and in his defense (1541).

In the blason proper, Surrey describes "a head, where wisdom mysteries did frame," or an intelligent courtier who incessantly worked for his country's good, an ambassador whose "tongue … served in foreign realms his king." Unlike the courtiers he describes in his satires, Wyatt had "a visage, stern and mild," which condemned vice and praised virtue; his mind was "void of guile." In the midst of his discussion of Wyatt as a courtier, Surrey praises his craft as a poet: "A hand, that taught what might be said in rime; / That reft Chaucer the glory of his wit." It is no coincidence that Wyatt's success as a poet is associated with his work as an ambassador, for his contact with French and Italian cultures must have inspired him to imitate Continental poetry. The eighth stanza is the antecedent for all those critical analyses aimed at describing Wyatt's attempt to define himself against the change, chance, and uncertainty of life at court. Surrey's premise is that the more Wyatt was envied, the better his life and works became; he was a singular man in a compromised world:

  A valiant corps, where force and beauty met,
  Happy, alas! too happy, but for foes,
  Lived, and ran the race that nature set;
  Of manhood's shape, where she the mold did lose.

The loss or the individuality lies in the power of Wyatt's poetry to evoke that precarious and ceremonialized life.

Source: Ellen C. Caldwell, "Thomas Wyatt," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 132, Sixteenth-Century British Nondramatic Writers, First Series, edited by David A. Richardson, Gale Research, 1993, pp. 346-363.

Reed Way Dasenbrock

In the following essay, Dasenbrock establishes that Wyatt's use of Petrarch was new and inventive and that Wyatt laid the groundwork for later poets who built upon his work with the sonnet format. Dasenbrock believes that Wyatt has not received the credit that he deserves as an imitator and translator of Petrarch's poetry.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to a proper understanding and appreciation of older works of art is our tendency to place them in our categories and judge them accordingly. Nowhere is this more true than in the consideration of works of art whose origins lie partly in other works. Ever since the Romantics, originality has been privileged over imitation, and this has relegated the once honorable activity of translation to a secondary place. In this view, the great writer works sui generis; only the second-rate proceed by imitating and translating the work of others. We can date the birth of this categorical distinction historically, but we have nevertheless tended to apply it to much earlier works.

An outstanding casualty of this approach has been Sir Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt has had the misfortune of being known primarily as an imitator and translator, as the first English Petrarchan. Except for Chaucer's translation of one of Petrarch's sonnets into three stanzas of Troilus and Criseide, he was the first translator of Petrarch's lyrics into English and he translated more of Petrarch's lyrics than anyone before the nineteenth century. He introduced the sonnet and the strambotto into English, tried somewhat less successfully to find an English equivalent for the canzone, and translated poems by a number of other Italian Petrarchans, most notably Serafino. Most importantly, his translations and imitations of Petrarch created a tradition of (and a form and language for) writing love sonnets in English that later culminated in the great sonnet sequences of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare. Wyatt's interest in and work with Petrarch's poetry, in short, was one of the seeds of the English Renaissance. But in the cultural horizon provided by the opposition between originality and imitation, our understanding of the seminal role played by Wyatt has not enhanced our opinion of him. Wyatt is still a comparatively little-read and regarded figure. We may praise him for translating Petrarch, for paving the way for later poets, but that is damning praise that prevents us from praising him for being a fine (and indeed original) poet.

The purpose of this essay is to describe the fundamental mistake we have been making in our approach to Wyatt's translations and imitations of Petrarch. We have concentrated on their origins as poems by Petrarch, not on their identity as poems by Wyatt. As a result, Wyatt scholarship has tended to categorize his translations according to the degree of faithfulness they bear towards their Petrarchan originals. I hope to show, however, that this approach fails to make sense either of Wyatt's interest in Petrarch or of the poems that result. Only by considering his versions of Petrarch in his or Petrarch's framework can we avoid the false dichotomy that has prevented us from understanding this crucial and seminal poetic relationship.

Many leading Wyatt critics have found his interest in Petrarch utterly inexplicable….

Hallett Smith in 1946 was the first modern critic to find Wyatt's interest in Petrarch understandable, as he recognizes that "Wyatt must have seen something more in these sonnets [of Petrarch] than merely 14-line poems with certain rhyme schemes." But he examines only one of Wyatt's translations, "The longe love that in my thought doeth harbour," and the point of his discussion is that Wyatt's translation is a better poem than Surrey's version of the same Petrarch original.

J. W. Lever's 1956 discussion of Wyatt is the first of a number of detailed discussions of Wyatt's versions of Petrarch. But his discussion is hampered by his acceptance of a dichotomy between translation and original work. Lever therefore claims that Wyatt matures as a poet by moving in effect from translation to original composition. In Lever's account, Wyatt began translating Petrarch in a respectful and faithful fashion, but then, repudiating Petrarch's values, he thereafter began to handle his Petrarchan originals in a "cynical and rebellious" fashion. His mature, most successful work is so free with the original that Lever calls it original composition, not translation, and this independence for Lever is something to praise. But this analysis cannot account for Wyatt's own perspective. If the degree of merit of a Wyatt poem is to be equated with the degree of independence it shows from its Petrarch original, why would Wyatt be interested in translating so many poems of Petrarch? Moreover, our knowledge of the chronology of Wyatt's poems is so sketchy that Lever's construction of a strict temporal sequence for these poems is problematic. Finally, and most tellingly, Lever cannot make his discussion consistent. The next to last sonnet he discusses, "The pillar pearisht is whearto I lent," which he praises highly and justly, is far closer to its Petrarchan source than the poems he presents as Wyatt's breakthrough into independence from Petrarch. In short, Wyatt's best poems are not necessarily his most original, nor does "originality" seem to have been his prime concern….

Thus none of these prominent Wyatt critics who have concerned themselves with his translations from Petrarch can understand Wyatt's interest in Petrarch, and this failure indicates a more fundamental failure to understand Wyatt's own categories for an activity like translating Petrarch….

Donald Guss in 1964 was the first to suggest that what Wyatt is doing with Petrarch is far more coherent and purposeful than these source studies indicate: "Throughout, Wyatt's poems reveal themselves to be his, not Petrarch's." Guss's central intuition is that Wyatt transforms his Petrarchan originals in one consistent direction, and that the rationale for this seemingly roundabout method of writing one's own poetry is to be found in Renaissance notions of imitation. Placing Wyatt's translations of Petrarch, in short, in their contemporary context makes it far easier to see why Wyatt would transform Petrarch and how he does so.

Thomas M. Greene has included a chapter on Wyatt in his study of Renaissance notions of imitation, The Light in Troy, and his analysis confirms Guss's pioneering notion that we need to recover the Renaissance idea of imitation in order to see why Wyatt would translate so much of Petrarch. As Greene has made clear, a central notion in Renaissance humanism, stemming largely from Petrarch himself, was that one forms an identity, a personal voice, precisely through the imitation of models. Petrarch's discussions of imitation are to be found in his letters, and in those discussions he always criticizes those who simply borrow or translate uncreatively…. Imitation is the transformation of a model which establishes a relation to that past model yet allows the later writer creative freedom….

This quick summary of the Renaissance notion of imitation should provide a context in which Wyatt's work with Petrarchan models can be understood. Wyatt imitates Petrarch partly because he is imitable and partly because he is inimitable. Something of the model can be brought over and that something creates the family resemblance that enables us to call Wyatt's poetry Petrarchan. But the resemblance does not have to be exact and in this case it isn't: Wyatt also translates Petrarch so as to establish a difference as well as a kinship. This is all part of the process of imitation in the Renaissance, in which one defines one's identity as a poet by engaging in the play of resemblance and difference known as imitation. Each poet transforms his model and in that transformation creates his own distinctive and individual style. Originality, in short, is born from imitation….

Complaint is a central theme in Wyatt's poetry and we can see Wyatt transforming … poems of Petrarch in which a lady is not so much as mentioned into similar poems of complaint. Petrarch's sonnet, "Vinse Anibàl, et non seppe usar poi," is a poem addressed to Petrarch's friend and patron, Stefano Colonna. It alludes to Hannibal's inaction after victory as a way to warn his friend not to do the same thing. Petrarch assumes that Colonna will heed his advice and that therefore the comparison will ultimately be a contrast. And he concludes as usual by moving away from the situation at hand and by assuring Colonna that his fame will last for thousands of years.

Wyatt turns this poem into an eight line strambotto about himself, "Off Cartage he that worthie warier," and he assumes a parallel—not a contrast—between himself and Hannibal: Hannibal failed and so did I. And in the conclusion which introduces two Petrarchan antitheses not in the original, he brings everything back to the situation at hand:

  so hangith in balaunce
  off warr my pees/reward of all my payne
  At Mountzon thus I restles rest in spayne.

Petrarch generalizes and praises his friend, whereas Wyatt tells us where he is and how unhappy he is. Thus, though Wyatt is here translating quite a different kind of Petrarch poem than "S' i' 'l dissi mai," he takes it to exactly the same place, creating another highly personal and specific poem of lament and complaint.

Wyatt procedes in the same way in "Though I my self be bridilled of my mynde". This is a translation of Petrarch's "Orso, al vostro destrier si po ben porre" (Canzoniere 98). Petrarch writes to his friend, Orso, who has to be absent from a tournament, and who is disappointed because he will miss the opportunity of seeing his Lady there. Wyatt again changes this second-person poem into a first-person poem, and writes about his own situation. He is away from his Lady on duty, and his poem is a fine lament about this.

It is completely characteristic that Wyatt, having a Lady, would have to leave her. But this can be put another way: he would not have thought of writing poems about her until he was away from her or unless he had something else to complain about. Petrarch's situation in love was no more satisfactory than Wyatt's, but his poems about Laura are nonetheless almost always in praise of her. In contrast to Petrarch's "stile de la loda," or praise-style, Wyatt's should be called a blame-style or a complaint-style. Wyatt's poems characteristically move towards a complaint for which someone specific is to blame. And these freer translations we have been examining are so free because Wyatt must rework Petrarch's poems rather extensively to replace Petrarch's praise and compensations with his own uncompensated blaming and complaints.

What I am suggesting is that the degree of freedom of a Wyatt translation is a function, not of Wyatt's degree of independence or rebelliousness, but of the distance the poem must travel to become a poem by Wyatt….

A poem like "Passa la nave mia colma d'oblio" is a straightforward piece of personal complaint, so Wyatt translates it into English (in "My galy charged with forgetfulnes,") almost without modification. He removes a mythological allusion in line 3 and heightens the sense of despair at the close by changing the original "i' 'ncomincio a desperar" ("I begin to despair") into "I remain dispering." Otherwise, this is a faithful translation, but paradoxically only because Petrarch's poem lacks his usual compensations in vision, religion, or the possibility of generalizing from and out of his personal experience.

Wyatt, in short, translates Petrarch much more faithfully here because Petrarch's poem is more like one of Wyatt's….

In conclusion, Guss and Greene are correct in placing Wyatt in the Renaissance tradition of imitation, but how he imitates Petrarch has not yet been correctly defined. In brief, what Wyatt does to Petrarch's original poems varies because they vary, not because Wyatt does. Our division of Wyatt's poems into various groups according to their distance from their Petrarchan models (imitations, free and close translations) obscures their essential similarity. As we have seen in an examination of approximately one third of Wyatt's translations of Petrarch, his translations are sometimes quite faithful, sometimes quite free; and what determines this is the distance he needs to take the poem in order to transform it into his kind of poem. Petrarch can be addressing friends or Love or Laura; his theme can be politics or love or religion; but Wyatt transforms all of these poems into his own highly personal poems of lament and reproach. The difference in treatment is a function of Petrarch's variety, since Wyatt's poems are all in the style of which Wyatt is the great master, the blame- or complaint-style. Wyatt is simply not interested in arriving at a faithful—or even at an unfaithful—translation of his model; those categories are not his categories but ours. What he is interested in is writing poems by Wyatt, and what he does with all of the poems by Petrarch that he translates—to put it simply—is to transform them all into poems by Wyatt.

Hence, Wyatt did—according to the Renaissance notion of imitation—find his own identity as a poet through his struggle with his model. And the firmness of that identity is shown when we can say that Petrarch in "Cesare, poi," for example, is proceeding in a way atypical of him, but very typical of Wyatt. Wyatt found this typical manner, in all likelihood, by translating poems such as these in the Canzoniere, but his "pervasive transformation" of Petrarch, to use Guss's phrase, allowed him to make that manner his own. Wyatt therefore is not necessarily being cynical or rebellious or anti-Petrarchan when he translates Petrarch freely. He is simply transforming his model in accordance with the canons of imitation of which Petrarch himself approved. Moreover, his transformation of Petrarch in a more realistic, personal, and self-centered direction is as important for the later, greater sonneteers of the English Renaissance as his introduction of the form of the sonnet. The English sonneteers—except for Spenser, as I have argued elsewhere—lack Petrarch's patience and his consolations in philosophy and religion. Their model in this, the typical English Petrarchan divergence from Petrarch, is Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Source: Reed Way Dasenbrock, "Wyatt's Transformation of Petrarch," in Comparative Literature, Vol. 40, No. 2, Spring 1988, pp. 122-33.


Amussen, Susan Dwyer, "Gender Order in Families and Villages," in An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England, Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 103, 117.

Bernard, G. W., "The Fall of Anne Boleyn," in the English Historical Review, Vol. 106, No. 420, July 1991, pp. 607, 609.

Daalder, Joost, "Introduction," in Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems, edited by Joost Daalder, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. xi-xiii.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way, "Understanding Renaissance Imitation: The Example of Wyatt," in Imitating the Italians: Wyatt, Spenser, Synge, Pound, Joyce, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, pp. 19, 30, 31.

Greenblatt, Stephen, "Power, Sexuality, and Inwardness in Wyatt's Poetry," in Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, University of Chicago Press, 1980, pp. 145-48, 152.

Petrarca, Francesco, "Rime 190," in The Poetry of Petrarch, translated by David Young, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004, p. 144.

Waller, Marguerite, "The Empire's New Clothes: Refashioning the Renaissance," in Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings, edited by Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley, University of Tennessee Press, 1989, pp. 169, 173.

Wyatt, Thomas, Sir, "Whoso List to Hunt," in Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems, edited by Joost Daalder, Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 7.

Further Reading

Fraser, Antonia, ed., The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, University of California Press, 1998.

Fraser's book is a large coffee-table book filled with many color portraits and copies of early English documents. She provides a concise biography of the kings and queens of England, presented in an easy-to-grasp narrative style and arranged chronologically. This book is very useful for digesting basic information about the British royalty.

Guy, John, Tudor England, Oxford, 1990.

This book, written in clear narrative prose, gives a historical account of the religious and political events of the Tudor reign. Guy includes discussion of economic and social conditions that were affected by the Protestant Reformation.

Jardine, Lisa, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, W. W. Norton, 1996.

Jardine looks at the Renaissance as a source not only of great cultural achievement but also of accomplishments in commerce. During the Renaissance, the acquisition of property became an important way to define success; Jardine examines the kinds of property that were acquired—including jewels, rich fabrics, tapestries, and art—and discusses the significance of the accumulation of goods.

Rose, Mary Beth, ed., Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Syracuse University Press, 1985.

This book remains a good source for understanding the diversity of women's lives during the period in which Wyatt was writing. The essays included by Rose explore women's education, women's roles in the church, and women as the subject of men's writing.

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain, 3 Vols., Hyperion, 2000–2002.

Schama's three volumes contain many maps, illustrations, and photos as well as a very readable history of Britain; Schama is often described as a storyteller. There is a great deal of information about both the obscure legends of Britain and the better-documented events. Schama includes information about the earliest chronicles of British history, the traditions that govern the nation, and the wars and monarchs that have defined it.

Singman, Jeffery L., Daily Life in Elizabethan England, Greenwood Press, 1995.

This book provides many small details about life in sixteenth-century England, explaining how people lived, the clothes they wore, what they ate, and the kinds of jobs they held.

Weir, Alison, Henry VIII: The King and His Court, Ballantine Books, 2001.

This is a very readable biography with a great deal of information about the Tudor court and the people who inhabited it. Weir includes several interesting pieces of information about Wyatt's role within the court, making her book an especially good read for fans of Wyatt's work.