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Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder (1503-1542): Poet, Gentleman, Diplomat, Ambassador, Friend of King Henry VIII (and Lover of his Queen?)

Introduction by Jeffrey Woodward

Sir Thomas Wyatt—one of England’s wealthiest gentlemen in his day—served with distinction, during a brief life, in various diplomatic posts for Henry VIII. Today, however, he is remembered predominately for his role in the foundation of modern English poetry and for a reputed love affair with his childhood friend Anne Boleyn, Marchioness of Pembroke and later Queen Consort of England.

Wyatt’s first diplomatic assignment came as early as 1526 when he accompanied Sir John Russell, Ambassador, to the Papal Court. He visited Venice, Florence and Rome and fell under the influence of French and Italian poetry, especially that of Francesco Petrarch with its smooth versification and sophisticated code of continental courtliness.

His romance with Anne Boleyn, if it did exist, ended in the early 1530s when the young Marchioness came to the attention of Henry VIII. Wyatt’s brilliant sonnet, "Whoso list to hunt," is widely believed to refer to this severance.

Whoso List to Hunt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
      But, as for me: helas, 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
      Draw from the deer; but as she fleeth afore
      Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
      Since 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.
      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.

Once the King secured an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, his first wife, he married Anne in 1533. The only child of this second marriage was Elizabeth, later England’s most famous queen.

By 1536, Henry VIII no longer favored Anne. The Queen Consort found herself accused of treason, adultery and incest. Five men, including her brother, were brought up on charges, tortured, found guilty and executed. Wyatt, due to his well-known association with Anne in the past, was also implicated and committed to the Tower on May 5, 1536. Anne’s trial and condemnation were swift. On May 19, the poet witnessed the beheading of Anne from his prison cell. His sister Mary attended Queen Anne at her execution. Wyatt, within the month, was cleared of any wrongdoing and released.

Wyatt’s political fortunes improved as a protégé of Thomas Cromwell, Lord Chamberlain, and he was rewarded with several important posts including that of Ambassador to Spain. With Cromwell’s trial and execution in the summer of 1540, Wyatt’s protection from political rivals vanished and he, along with other allies of Cromwell, fell under suspicion. Wyatt discovered himself accused of disrespectful statements about the King and of complicity with Cardinal Pole in treason. Wyatt, however, was eventually judged innocent and again released from the Tower.

He returned to service at the court and, in 1542, was dispatched to conduct the Imperial Ambassador from Falmouth to London. Wyatt fell ill on this journey and died at Sherborne in Dorset, where he was buried on October 11, 1542.

The importance of Wyatt in the historical development of modern English poetry cannot be exaggerated. Apart from his unique gifts as a poet and his ready spirit of determined independence and frank address, Wyatt’s importation and adaptation of French and Italian verse forms, such as the rondeau, canzone, terza rima and sonnet revolutionized English verse.

A set of conventions—that of the unattainable love of the poet’s lady and the poet’s unwavering loyalty despite his suffering—entered English poetry as well with Wyatt’s Petrarchan model, a circumstance that deeply influenced the 16th and 17th century sonnets that followed. Another convention of Petrarch’s art was that of the “conceit,” the extended and heightened metaphorical hyperbole that, in one stroke, offered fanciful praise of the lady and demonstrated the poet’s wit. Within the sonnet, the technique was so popular and popularly abused that Shakespeare, barely 50 years later, could lampoon the technique confidently (see his "Sonnet 130"). The introduction of the conceit, however, found more fertile ground in the work of the metaphysical poets of the 17th century, such as Donne, Herbert, Marvell and Vaughn.

Wyatt also influenced English poetry in yet another direction with his introduction of the Horatian satire in three epistolary poems. "Mine own John Poyns," the most widely read of these, is reproduced below. For an early attempt to naturalize a foreign stanza (Dante’s terza rima) and novel subject matter, Wyatt exceeds expectations and his characteristic courage, pride and independence is everywhere evident.

They Flee from Me

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 pleasaunt guise,
  When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
  And she me caught in her arms long and small,
Therewith all 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 new fangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

My Lute Awake!

My lute awake! perform the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
   And end that I have now begun;
For when this song is sung and past.
   My lute be still, for I have done.

As to be heard where ear is none,
As lead to grave in marble stone,
   My song may pierce her heart as soon;
Should we then sigh, or sing, or moan?
   No ! No ! my lute, for I have done.

The rocks do not so cruelly
Repulse the waves continually
   As she my suit and affection;
So that I am past remedy,
   Whereby my lute and I have done.

Proud of the spoil that thou hast got
Of simple hearts, thorough Love's shot;
   By whom, unkind, thou hast them won,
Think not he hath his bow forgot,
   Although my lute and I have done.

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.

Perchance 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.

And then may chance thee to repent
The time that thou hast lost and spent
   To cause thy lovers sigh and swoon;
Then shalt thou know beauty but lent,
   And wish and want as I have done.

Now cease, my lute: this is the last
Labour that thou and I shall wast,
   And ended is that we begun;
Now is this song both sung and past
   My lute be still, for I have done.

After Great Storms the Calm Returns

After great storms the calm returns
      And pleasanter it is thereby.
   Fortune likewise that often turns
      Hath made me now the most happy.

 Th' heaven that pitied my distress
      My just desire and my cry,
   Hath made my languor to cease,
      And me also the most happy.

 Whereto despaired ye my friends?
      My trust alway in him did lie,
   That knoweth what my though(t) intends,
      Whereby I live the most happy.

 Lo! what can take hope from that heart
      That is assured steadfastly?
   Hope therefore ye that live in smart,
      Whereby I am the most happy.

 And I that have felt of your pain,
      Shall pray to God continually
   To make your hope your health retain,
      And me also the most happy.

What Rage Is This

What rage is this? What furor of what kind?
What power, what plague doth weary thus my mind?
Within my bones to rankle is assigned
                              What poison, pleasant sweet?

Lo see mine eyes swell with continual tears,
The body still away sleepless it wears,
My food nothing my fainting strength repairs,
                              Nor doth my limbs sustain.

In deep wide wound the deadly stroke doth turn,
To cured scar that never shall return.
Go to, triumph, rejoice thy goodly turn,
                              Thy friend thou dost oppress.

Oppress thou dost and hast of him no cure,
Nor yet my plaint no pity can procure,
Fierce tiger fell, hard rock without recure,
                              Cruel rebel to love.

Once may thou love never be loved again;
So love thou still and not thy love obtain;
So wrathful love, with spites of just disdain
                              May threat thy cruel heart.

Tagus, Farewell

Tagus, farewell, that westward, with thy streams,
  Turns up the grains of gold already tried,
  With spur and sail for I go seek the Thames,
  Gainward the sun that show'th her wealthy pride,
  And to the town which Brutus sought by dreams,
  Like bended moon doth lend her lusty side.
  My King my Country, alone for whom I live,
  Of mighty love the wings for this me give.

Farewell Love and All Thy Laws for Ever

Farewell Love and all thy laws for ever,
      Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more;
      Senec and Plato call me from thy lore
      To perfect wealth my wit for to endeavour.
   In blind error when I did persever,
      Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh ay so sore,
      Hath taught me to set in trifles no store,
      And scape forth, since liberty is liefer.
   Therefore farewell, go trouble younger hearts,
      And in me claim no more authority,
      With idle youth go use thy property,
   And thereon spend thy many brittle darts.
      For hitherto though I have lost all my time,
    Me lusteth no longer rotten boughs to climb.

Divers Doth Use, as I Have Heard and Know

Divers doth use, as I have heard and know,
   When that to change their ladies do begin,
   To moan and wail, and never for to lin,
   Hoping thereby to pease their painful woe.
   And some there be, that when it chanceth so
 That women change, and hate where love hath been,
   They call them false, and think with words to win
   The hearts of them which otherwhere doth go.
   But as for me, though that by chance indeed
   Change hath out-worn the favour that I had,
   I will not wail, lament, nor yet be sad,
   Nor call her false that falsley did me feed,
   But let it pass and think it is of kind,
   That often change doth please a woman's mind.

Blame Not My Lute

Blame not my lute for he must sound,
  Of this and that as liketh me,
  For lack of wit the lute is bound
  To give such tunes as pleaseth me,
  Though my songs be somewhat strange,
  And speaks such words as touch thy change
                                         Blame not my lute.

My lute alas doth not offend,
  Though that perforce he must agree
  To sound such tunes as I intend,
  To sing to them that heareth me.
  Then though my songs be somewhat plain,
  And toucheth some that use to feign,
                                         Blame not my lute.

My lute and strings may not deny
  But as I strike they must obey.
  Break not them then so wrongfully
  But wreak thyself some wiser way.
  And though the songs which I indite
  Do quit thy change with rightful spite
                                         Blame not my lute.

Spite asketh spite and changing change,
  And falsed faith must needs be known,
  The fault so great, the case so strange
  Of right it must abroad be blown.
  Then since that by thine own desert
  My songs do tell how true thou art,
                                          Blame not my lute.

 Blame but the self that hast misdone,
  And well deserved to have blame.
  Change thou thy way so evil begone,
  And then my lute shall sound that same.
  But if till then my fingers play
  By thy desert, their wonted way
                                         Blame not my lute.

Farewell, unknown, for though thou break
  My strings in spite, with great disdain,
  Yet have I found out for thy sake
  Strings for to string my lute again.
  And if perchance this silly rhyme
  Do make thee blush at any time,
                                         Blame not my lute.

With Serving Still

With serving still
  This have I won,
  For my goodwill
  To be undone.

And for redress
  Of all my pain,
  I have again.

And for reward
  Of all my smart,
  Lo, thus unheard
  I must depart!

Wherefore all ye
  That after shall
  By fortune be
  As I am, thrall,

Example take,
  What I have won
  Thus for her sake
  To be undone!

All Heavy Minds

All heavy minds
      Do seek to ease their charge,
      And that that most them binds
          To let at large.

Then why should I
      Hold pain within my heart,
      And may my tune apply
          To ease my smart?

My faithful lute
      Alone shall hear me plain,
      For else all other suit
          Is clean in vain.

For where I sue
      Redress of all my grief,
      Lo they do most eschew
          My hearts relief.

Alas my dear
      Have I deserved so,
      That no help may appear
          Of all my woe?

Whom speak I to,
      Unkind and deaf of ear?
      Alas, lo I go,
          And wot not where.

Where is my thought?
      Where wanders my desire?
      Where may the thing be sought
          That I require?

Light in the wind
      Doth flee all my delight,
      Where truth and faithfull mind
          Are put to flight.

Who shall me give
      Feathered wings for to flee,
      The thing that doth me grieve
          That I may see?

Who would go seek
      The cause whereby to pain?
      Who could his foe beseek
          For ease of pain?

My chance doth so
      My woeful case procure,
      To offer to my foe
          My heart to cure.

What hope I then
      To have any redress?
      Of whom or where or when
          Who can express?

No! since despair
      Hath set me in this case,
      In vain oft in the air
          To say 'Alas'!

I seek nothing
      But thus for to discharge
      My heart of sore sighing,
          To plain at large.

And with my lute
      Some time to ease my pain,
      For else all other suit
          Is clean in vain.

Mine Own John Poyns

Mine own John Poyns, since ye delight to know
  The cause why that homeward I me draw,
  And flee the press of courts where so they go,

Rather than to live thrall, under the awe
  Of lordly looks, wrappèd within my cloak,
  To will and lust learning to set a law;

It is not for because I scorn and mock
  The power of them, to whom fortune hath lent
  Charge over us, of Right, to strike the stroke;

But true it is that I have alwayes meant
  Less to esteem them than the common sort,
  Of outward things that judge in their intent

Without regard what doth inward resort.
  I grant some time that of glory the fire
  Doth touch my heart; me list not to report

Blame by honour, and honour to desire.
  But how may I this honour now attain.
  That cannot dye the colour black a liar?

My Poyns, I cannot frame my tune to feign,
  To cloak the truth for praise without desert
  Of them that list all vice for to retain.

I cannot honour them that sets their part
  With Venus and Bacchus all their life long;
  Nor hold my peace of them although I smart.

I cannot crouch nor kneel to do so great a wrong,
  To worship them, like God on earth alone,
  That are as wolves these silly lambs among.

I cannot with words complain and moan,
  Nor suffer nought; nor smart without complaint;
  Nor turn the word that from my mouth is gone.

I cannot speake and look like a saint,
  Use wiles for wit, or make deceit a pleasure
  And call craft counsel, for profit still to paint.

I cannot wrest the law to fill the coffer
  With innocent blood to feed my self fat,
  And do most hurt where most help I offer.

I am not he that can allow the state
  Of high Caesar, and damn Cato to die,
  That with his death did scape out of the gate

From Caesar's hands (if Livy do not lie),
  And would not live when liberty was lost;
  So did his heart the common weal apply.

I am not he such eloquence to boast
  To make the crow singing as the swan;
  Nor call the lion of coward beasts the most

That cannot take a mouse as the cat can;
  And he that dieth for hunger of the gold
  Call him Alexander; and say that Pan

Passeth Apollo in music manifold;
  Praise Sir Thopas for a noble tale,
  And scorn the story that the knight told;

Praise him for counsel that is drunk of ale,
  Grin when he laugheth that beareth all the sway,
  Frown when he frowneth and groan when he is pale;

On others lust to hang both night and day.
  None of these points would ever frame in me,
   My wit is nought, I cannot learn the way.

And much the less of things that greater be
  That asken help of colours of devise
  To join the mean with each extremity;

With the nearest virtue to cloak alway the vice;
  And as to purpose, likewise it shall fall
  To press the virtue that it may not rise:

As drunkeness, good fellowship to call;
  The friendly foe with his double face,
  Say he is gentle, and courteous therewithal;

And say that Favel hath a goodly grace
  In eloquence; and cruelty to name
  Zeal of Justice, and change in time and place.

And he that suffereth offence without blame
  Call him pitiful; and him true and plain
  That raileth reckless to every man's shame;

Say he is rude that cannot lie and feign;
  The lecher a lover; and tyranny
  To be the right of a prince's reign.

I cannot I, no no it will not be!
  This is the cause that I could never yet
  Hang on their sleeves that weigh, as thou mayst see,

A chip of chance more than a pound of wit.
  This maketh me at home to hunt and to hawk,
  And in foul weather at my book to sit;

In frost and snow then with my bow to stalk;
  No man doth mark where so I ride or go;
  In lusty leas at liberty I walk;

And of these news I feel nor weal nor woe,
  Save that a clog doth hang yet at my heel.
  No force for that; for it is ordered so,

That I may leap both hedge and dyke full well.
  I am not now in France to judge the wine
  With savoury sauce the delicates to feel.

Nor yet in Spain where one must him incline
  Rather than to be outwardly, to seem;
  I meddle not with wits that be so fine.

Nor Flander's cheer letteth not my sight to dim
  Of black and white, nor taketh my wit away
  With beastliness; they beasts do so esteem.

Nor am I not where Christ is given in prey
  For money, poison and treason at Rome,—
  A common practice used night and day.

But here I am in Kent and Christendom,
  Among the muses where I read and rhyme,
  Where if thou list, my Poyns, for to come,
  Thou shalt be judge how I do spend my time.

Modern Editions of the Poems

Daalder, Joost, Editor. Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems. Oxford University Press, 1975.
Muir, Kenneth and Patricia Thomson, Editors. Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Liverpool University Press, 1969.
Rebholz, R.A., Editor. Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems.Yale University Press, 1986.


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