The best poems by Thomas Wyatt selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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, 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 …
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! 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 …
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 perish’d is whereto I leant,
The strongest stay of my unquiet mind;
The like of it no man again can find,
From east to west still seeking though he went,
To mine unhap …
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 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 …
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 longë love that in my thought doth harbour
And in mine hert doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretence
And therein campeth, spreading his banner.
She that me learneth to love and suffer
And will that my trust and lustës negligence
Be rayned by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure …
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 the tried intent
Of such a truth as I have meant;
My great travail so gladly spent,
Forget not yet.
Forget not yet when first began
The weary life ye know, since whan
The suit, the service, none tell can;
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…
Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.
The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat …
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?
Say nay, say nay, for shame,
To save thee from the blame
Of all my grief and grame;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!
And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath loved thee so long
In wealth and woe among?
And is thy heart so strong
As for to leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay …
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 Poynz, since ye delight to know
The cause why that homeward I me draw,
And flee the press of courts, whereso 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 or mock
The power of them, to whom fortune hath lent
Charge over us, of right, to strike the stroke …
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 whoso list upon the slipper top
Of court’s estates, and let me here rejoice;
And use me quiet without let or stop,
Unknown in court, that hath such brackish joys …
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).
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.