The best poems by Thomas Wyatt
The poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) is that rare thing: both of interest from a historical perspective (he lived through one of the most interesting periods of English history) and genuinely innovative and stylistically accomplished. Here are ten of Thomas Wyatt’s best poems, with some information about each of them.
‘Whoso List to Hunt’. Like many poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42), ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ – one of the earliest sonnets written in English – is a loose reworking of a poem by the Italian poet Petrarch. But Wyatt may have been drawing on very personal romantic experience when he penned this poem, which sees him ‘taking himself out of the running’ when it comes to pursuing a beautiful woman. The woman, it has been suggested, is Anne Boleyn, now involved with no lesser a person than the King, Henry VIII. This is one of Wyatt’s best-known poems – and one of the finest.
‘My Lute Awake!’. Another poem about giving up – just as Wyatt, in the sonnet above, wishes to take himself out of the ‘hunt’ for the ‘hind’. Here, Wyatt calls on his lute – the stringed instrument more or less synonymous with Tudor music – to help him ‘perfourme the last / Labour’ that he wishes to perform. Why? Because a woman has spurned Wyatt: ‘she’ repulses his ‘suyte and affection’.
‘The Pillar Perished’. Like ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, this sonnet is based on one of Petrarch’s. ‘The piller pearisht is whearto I lent’, as the original spelling has it: somebody on whom Wyatt relied and depended has died, and he is destined to live out the rest of his days in sorrow and pain, till death releases him from his ‘dolefull state’.
‘They Flee from Me’. Like ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, this poem – written in rhyme royal (a poetic form introduced into English literature by Geoffrey Chaucer) – is possibly autobiographical, and may refer to Wyatt’s relationship with Anne Boleyn. The women who used to seek Wyatt out for romantic trysts now shun him. Wyatt also draws on the image of a formerly tame woman who is now wild (like the ‘hind’ from ‘Whoso List’).
‘The Long Love’. Another sonnet modelled on a Petrarchan original, ‘The longe love, that in my thought doeth harbar’ uses military imagery to describe love. Love sets up camp in Wyatt’s ‘face’, but being restrained by the woman who rejects Wyatt’s loving (and lustful) advances, he flees to the ‘forest’ of Wyatt’s heart, hiding there. Wyatt decides to set out into the ‘field’ with love, and to join him in battle there – in other words, to be bold and reveal his love to his mistress. The final lines of this sonnet might be crudely paraphrased as: ‘No guts, no glory.’
‘Forget Not Yet’. This short poem, using the repeated refrain ‘Forget not’, sees Wyatt entreating those who have shunned him to remember that he was steadfast and true to them. Is this another veiled reference to Wyatt’s possible romantic involvement with Anne Boleyn? Biographers and critics have speculated, but what we can say for sure is that this is a fine poem about a spurned lover and onetime favourite. Life at the Tudor royal court was tough and competitive, with back-stabbers lurking round every corner, one could find oneself quickly out of favour…
‘Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei’. The rather less-than-catchy Latin title of this wonderful poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42), a pioneer of English poetry in the Renaissance, translates as ‘my enemies surround my soul’. But the poem is better-known for its use of another Latin phrase, the refrain ‘circa Regna tonat’: ‘it thunders around the realm’.
‘And wilt thou leave me thus?’. Sir Thomas Wyatt is perhaps the English poet to read when you’ve had an acrimonious break-up with a lover – hardly anybody writes with more passion and feeling, yet in such a wonderfully stylistically controlled way, about being abandoned by a loved one. Once again, we have a repeated refrain, and once again, a plaintive and slightly disgruntled address to a woman who has spurned him: ‘Say nay, say nay!’
‘Mine Own John Poins’. We know this poem has its roots in Wyatt’s own life, as he had a friend named John Poins. But once again, Wyatt shows his skill at reworking Italian forms into the English vernacular: this poem is based on one by Alamanni, though it uses the terza rima form perfected by Dante in his Divine Comedy. Addressing his friend, Wyatt explains why he has been exiled from court and sent ‘homeward’.
‘Stand who so list’. This short poetic fragment is another translation, this time from Roman writer Seneca’s play Thyestes. The sentiment of this ten-line poem is one that we find elsewhere in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s best poems: the life at court is an uncertain one, and there is something to be said (as Paul Scofield, as Thomas More, put it in A Man for All Seasons) for ‘the quiet life’. Sure enough, Wyatt would avoid the chopping block and would die in his bed.
Discover more of Wyatt’s poetry with the first poetry anthology in English and one of the finest publications of the sixteenth century, Tottel’s Miscellany: Songs and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Others (Penguin Classics).
Image: Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein, published by J. Chamberlain in 1812, Wikimedia Commons.