An early English sonnet, analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
Sir Thomas Wyatt’s ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ is one of the earliest sonnets in all of English literature. What follows is the poem, followed by a brief introduction to, and analysis of, the poem’s language and imagery – as well as its surprising connections to King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Wyatt (1503-1542) probably wrote ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ some time during the 1530s, and the poem was published in the 1550s after his death.
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, 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.
This sonnet is a loose translation of a poem by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch, who had been the first major poet to use the form (though Petrarch did not in fact invent the sonnet; we’ve discussed the origins of the sonnet here). Petrarch left such a mark on the sonnet that one of the most famous sonnet forms is still often referred to as the ‘Petrarchan sonnet’. Such a poem is fourteen lines long and is divided into two ‘chunks’ (to use a not very technical term), an eight-line section (called an ‘octave’) and a six-line section (a ‘sestet’). Often there is a volta or ‘turn’ at the beginning of the sestet: the direction of the sonnet’s argument changes. The octave is rhymed abbaabba (as above) and the sestet adopts many different rhyme schemes; Wyatt, in ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, employs cddcee. This is important because it introduces a couplet at the end of the sonnet that would become a fixture of the English, or ‘Shakespearean’, sonnet some half a century later.
However, Wyatt alters Petrarch’s original in a number of key ways, including the rhyme scheme for that sestet (Petrarch’s original sonnet did not end with a couplet). The poem might be summarised thus: the speaker addresses the world, claiming that if anyone should choose (‘list’) to go hunting, the speaker knows of a hind (female deer), but the speaker must count himself out of the chase. This is all metaphor, of course: the ‘hind’ is really a beautiful woman, and the ‘hunt’ is the courtship of the woman. But this speaker has had enough, and knows he’s lost the chase. However, he cannot entirely give up, since whenever he tries to leave off, he finds himself pursuing her anyway (‘Fainting I follow’). But such pursuit is foolhardy and futile: it’s like trying to contain the wind in a net. The sestet concludes by saying that this hind has already been claimed by ‘Caesar’ (implying a king or other powerful ruler), as revealed by the declaration hanging round the deer’s neck (‘Noli me tangere‘ is Latin for ‘do not touch me’ – the words also have Christ-like overtones, implying that this ‘hind’ is almost divine in her beauty – Christ beseeched Mary Magdalene ‘do not touch me’ when she encountered him after the Resurrection). What’s more, the ‘hind’ is a wild creature, though she appears tame, suggesting that to breach the command round the animal’s neck would be a dangerous thing to do.
The poem stands up well on its own, thanks to its intricate play of sounds (‘hind’ playing off ‘hunt’ in that first line, for instance), so that one need not know more about Tudor politics and life at the court of Henry VIII to appreciate its message. Wyatt also displays masterly control of the movement of the sonnet: look at the way ‘behind’ at the end of the fourth line picks up, and contains, the ‘hind’ from the first line, and how ‘therefore’ a few lines on echoes ‘afore’ from the previous line. This neatly plays out, through the movement of the poem, the speaker’s own sense of stasis and frustration: he cannot move forward (‘afore’), instead destined always to fall ‘behind’, just as the rhymes seem reluctant or unable to progress.
One biographical note on the poem adds an extra layer of meaning. Wyatt was a poet at the court of Henry VIII, and knew Anne Boleyn, the king’s second wife. (Wyatt’s great poem ‘They Flee from Me’ may also be about Boleyn.) Whether Wyatt and Anne were ever sexually or romantically involved remains unknown, but it seems likely that Wyatt admired Anne and the ‘hind’ in this poem can be seen as a veiled reference to her. (It’s even possible to detect her name in ‘an hind’; though perhaps detecting a little Anne – Annette – in ‘a net’ in line eight is taking the wordplay too far.) In this reading, ‘Caesar’ clearly refers to Henry himself, the all-powerful ruler who ‘owns’ Anne. But the poem stands aside from its biographical story as a great early example of the English sonnet. One can provide an analysis of the poem without resorting to speculation about the poet’s biography; but the Anne Boleyn connection does provide another possible meaning to the ‘hind’ of the poem.
Here is the poem with its original sixteenth-century spelling:
Who so list to hounte, I know where is an hynde,
But as for me, helas, I may no more.
The vayne travaill hath weried me so sore,
I ame of theim that farthest cometh behinde.
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,
Sithens in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,
As well as I may spend his tyme in vain.
And graven with Diamondes in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
‘Noli me tangere for Cesars I ame,
And wylde for to hold though I seme tame’.
This short analysis of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem is the third in our ‘short analysis’ series: we have previously analysed Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ and Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’. We’ve also offered some general advice on the close reading of poetry here. More Renaissance poetry can be found in our analysis of Donne’s ‘Death, be not proud’ sonnet.
If you’d like to discover more Tudor poetry, we recommend Tottel’s Miscellany: Songs and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Others (Penguin Classics), which was the original 1557 anthology in which Wyatt’s poetry first appeared. It’s full of fantastic Renaissance poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein, published by J. Chamberlain in 1812, Wikimedia Commons.