Poet of the Month: Sir Thomas Wyatt

May’s poet of the month is the Renaissance poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542). Known for his poems that gave insights into Tudor courtly life, as well as his own romantic longings. The reason I picked him is because he was one of the very first poets who I explored beyond just reading one or two of their poems.

Wyatt was not only a poet, he was also an ambassador for the crown, and served as High Sheriff of Kent for a time. He was married when very young, only seventeen, to Elizabeth Brooke. They had a son in 1521, and lived separately thereafter, apparently not caring overly much for each other.

I was at first interested in Wyatt because of his supposed love affair with Anne Boleyn (almost certainly false (at least in a physical sense and how we would understand “affair”)), and how he became wrapped up in her adultery trial in 1536. As a teenager I was obsessed with all things Anne Boleyn, and I wanted to know as much about her as possible. May 19th 2018 marks 482 years since Anne’s death – every year on this date for the past fifty or so years, there have been a bouquet of flowers anonymously delivered to the Tower of London to be placed on her grave in the chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula.

My favourite poem by Wyatt was, and remains, ‘Whoso List to Hunt…’. This poem is a thinly veiled allegory regarding Wyatt’s unrequited love for Anne Boleyn, and his lack of luck in pursuing her. It is in the form of a sonnet, but was written well before Shakespeare developed the style to suit his own musings on love.

Thomas Wyatt 2
Sadly he did not look like this (Thomas Wyatt as portrayed by Jamie Thomas King in ‘The Tudors’)

In the poem Wyatt is complaining that he is the ‘farthest cometh behind’ and that if any other should seek to pursue the “hind” then he ‘As well as I may spend his time in vain’. Wyatt insinuates that the reason he didn’t win the hunt was because he did not have enough to tempt the quarry in question. The hind in this poem is clearly Anne Boleyn.

She has no need for his fancy words or love poems because ‘graven with diamonds in letters plains/There is written, her fair neck round about: Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am’. ‘Noli me tangere’ means ‘Touch me not’ in Latin. Wyatt is clearly stating that the hind belongs to ‘Caesar’ (Henry VIII), and he has claimed ownership of her through expensive gifts with which Wyatt, as a middling noble from Surrey, could never hope to compete. Using a deer as a metaphor for Anne is another clever aspect because in Tudor England the game in the King’s forest was strictly off limits, and to hunt any without his permission was a crime. Another famously romantic poem by Wyatt is ‘And Wilt Thou Leave Me Thus…’ which you can read in full here.

Thomas Wyatt
A more realistic portrait of Wyatt, by Hans Holbein the Younger.

The other poem by Wyatt I wanted to draw attention to is ‘Circa Regna Tonat’ which translates to ‘Around the throne, thunder rolls’. Again this poem was written about Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII, but it was written in the weeks and months following her death. Wyatt was arrested in early May 1536, along with George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton, and Mark Smeaton, as part of the coup against the Boleyn faction at the court. Unlike his fellows, however, Wyatt was not tried for treason on May 12, but instead remained in custody in the Bell Tower, his fate uncertain.

The poem itself is a thinly veiled attack on the King; although it is clearly written from a place of shock rather than one of hatred. Wyatt lets others in his position know that they should ‘Press not too fast’ for ‘Circa regna tonat’. This line illustrates that, like the others who were tried and found guilty, Wyatt had been sure of his position at court, but the mood and mind of the King were so changeable that nothing was secure. A study from Yale Memory Clinic suggests Henry’s behaviour was due to a traumatic brain injury, sustained whilst jousting in January 1536. This has been argued back and forth by historians, with some saying that his vile mood was more as a result of the putrid leg injury he sustained. Enough to make anyone grumpy I would suspect.

Returning to the poem, Wyatt continues along this theme of uncertainty with the line ‘the fall is grievous from aloft’ which is effectively a Tudor version of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” sentiment (pub quiz fact – that phrase is believed to have originated from the sport of bare-knuckle boxing in the early twentieth century). When Anne is portrayed in popular culture she is often seen clambering over people, and creating many enemies, on her way to the top. She relied on the protection of the King, and once that was gone, her fall was inevitable. The same applied to the men who were executed; they had been so sure of their position within her protection, that they too had no other other options once she fell from grace.

A highly romanticized portrait by Edouard Cibot of Anne in the Tower with a Lady-in-Waiting.

The final lines of the poem accuses Henry of ignoring the truth in the pursuit of his goal. This is almost certainly an accurate portrayal of his actions in May 1536. Wyatt states that ‘Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,/ of innocency to please or prate’ – it mattered not whether the accused were innocent or guilty, the King wanted rid of them, so rid of them he would be. The biggest piece of historical evidence that supports this is the fact that Anne signed a document annulling her marriage in the weeks before her death. An annulment is a legal state which means something was never valid, and never real in the eyes of the State (or God). She was executed for charges of treason, incest, and adultery. The question stands that if her marriage had never been real or valid, how could she have committed adultery? Anyway, that’s a little off topic, and straying into the realms of my fanatical passion for history, for which this blog post is not the place.

As for Wyatt, he was released from the Tower later in the summer of 1536, probably wondering why he had been spared when his fellows had not. He comments that ‘these bloody days have broken my heart’; he was never to fully rejoin court life, and he died in 1542.

You can read more of Wyatt’s poetry here.

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