Thursday, 19 April 2018

POET OF THE MONTH #46: Thomas Wyatt

c 1535


They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better, but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And me she caught in her arms long and small,
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking.
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.

written c 1527, published 1557

line 2: stalking = moving stealthily
line 5: in danger = in my power
line 6: range = wander, roam
line 7: with a continual change = in an unsettled way
line 9: in special = a close or exclusive connection
line 10: In thin array after a pleasant guise = scantily clad after being finely dressed
line 12: small = slender, narrow
line 16: thorough = through
line 16: gentleness = resignation, acceptance
line 18: leave to go of her goodness = reason to give up her love
line 19: use newfangleness = behave in a fickle way, take a new lover
line 21: fain = be eager to
line 21: hath deserved = what's become of her

The Poet: Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503 (the precise date is unknown) at Allington Castle, located near the town of Maidstone in the English county of Kent.  His father Henry Wyatt was a nobleman from Yorkshire who refused to support the Yorkist monarch Richard III and was gaoled for his obstinacy, spending several months in prison in Scotland until the accession of Henry VII to the English throne in 1485 saw him released and lavishly rewarded for his unswerving loyalty to the Tudor cause.  He purchased Allington Castle in 1492 and was visited there by Henry VIII in 1527 where, as a member of the Privy Council and a Knight of the Bath, he almost certainly participated in the private discussions the King had come to have with Cardinal Wolsey regarding his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn, daughter of Wyatt's friend and closest neighbour Sir Thomas Boleyn whose ancestral seat, Hever Castle, was only twenty miles away.

Little is known of the early life of Thomas Wyatt, who was probably educated at home by a tutor until the age of twelve when he formally entered the King's service as a 'Sewer Extraordinary.'  (A 'sewer' was a noble servant charged with the task of seating guests at the King's table and tasting his food.)  In 1515 or 1516 (sources disagree) Wyatt entered St John's College, Cambridge, combining the study of Humanism, the prevailing philosophical fashion of the day, with his duties at court.  He did this, it is believed, until 1520 when he married Elizabeth Brooke, daughter of the Baron of Cobham.  One year later Elizabeth bore him a son, also named Thomas, who would be executed in 1554 after leading a failed rebellion against Mary I, Catholic daughter of Henry VIII and half sister of the soon-to-be crowned Elizabeth I.

Wyatt's marriage was not a happy one, the blame for which, he always maintained, resided 'chiefly' with his wife.  This may explain his eagerness to follow in his father's footsteps and serve at court, becoming Clerk of the Royal Jewels in 1524 and then an ambassador who accompanied Sir John Russell to Rome in 1526 to petition Pope Clement VII to allow Henry VIII to divorce his Spanish wife so he could marry 'his Anne' –– a witty, highly sexed beauty who had also been Wyatt's childhood friend.  He and Elizabeth separated soon after his return from the Continent, with Wyatt citing his wife's adultery as the reason for the split.  (No proof was ever produced to confirm this accusation.)  Wyatt continued to support Elizabeth until 1536, when he declared he would no longer do so and sent her to live with her brother.  They were not reconciled until 1541 when Wyatt, accused of treason and by then languishing in the Tower of London, was released by the new Queen Katherine Howard on condition that he and Elizabeth resume normal marital relations.  It's unlikely, however, that this occurred, as Wyatt was already involved in a long-term affair with Elizabeth Darrell, a former lady-in-waiting who would eventually bear him three illegitimate sons, two of whom survived into adulthood.

c 1530

Many believe that Wyatt began his affair with Elizabeth Darrell after unsuccessfully attempting to woo his neighbour's daughter Anne Boleyn, who had first appeared at court in 1522 and was, by 1526, being actively pursued by the King. Wyatt accompanied Anne and Henry on a visit to France in 1532 and served in Anne's private retinue prior to her coronation in 1533.  While there is no hard evidence to suggest they enjoyed a sexual relationship, Wyatt's poetry is full of veiled references to Anne and what might have been had she not caught the eye and then captured the notoriously fickle heart of Henry VIII.  Wyatt's most famous poem, Whoso List to Hunt, portrays Anne as a female deer and himself as its unsuccessful hunter, forced to abandon the chase after reading the words 'Noli me tangere' [do not touch] engraved on a diamond necklace she wears around her neck.  The symbolism is clear and could easily be transposed to They Flee From Me with its tone of resignation and poignant references to the male lover's sadness and 'strange fashion of forsaking.'

Wyatt, who was knighted by Henry VIII in 1535, was taken into custody in May 1536 along with several other courtiers suspected of being sympathetic to the now out of favour Anne.  It is said that he personally witnessed his former sweetheart's beheading from a window in the Tower, from which he was released in June after much anxious lobbying by his well connected father.  His reputation undamaged, Wyatt was named English ambassador to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, serving in this capacity until 1541 when he was once again arrested, this time for treason after he was overheard making disparaging remarks about the King. 

Although he was soon restored to favour –– thanks largely, it seems, to the intervention of Henry's fifth Queen –– and was permitted to resume his ambassadorial duties, Wyatt's good fortune was shortlived.  He fell ill in October 1542 while receiving the envoy of Charles V in Falmouth and died a few days later at Maybank House, the Dorset home of his friend Sir John Horsey.

Although Wyatt's work was widely read at court, none of it appeared in print until ninety-six of his poems were included in Tottel's Miscellany, a collection of hitherto unpublished 'songes and sonettes' printed in London in June 1557 by textbook publisher John Tottel.  It was these poems –– along with those of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, which appeared in the same volume –– which introduced the Italian sonnet form to English poetry, paving the way for the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and what became the Golden Age of Elizabethan literature.  Wyatt's work remains notable for its blending of Italian and English forms, divided as it is into poems of loss and longing and poems which satirize life at court and its many frustrations and compromises.

Click HERE to read more about the life and work of English courtier, diplomat and poet THOMAS WYATT.  You can also click HERE to read more about his relationship with ANNE BOLEYN, the true nature of which remains disputed to this day.

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #26: Robert Southwell
POET OF THE MONTH #1: Walter Ralegh
POET OF THE MONTH #33: Anthony Burgess

No comments:

Post a Comment