Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sir Thomas Wyatt

If you’re a lackadaisical poetry reader, one for whom prose is the natural element, you may like to reread the same poems again and again, so that they become an effortless delight. Sit in the hammock, sip a non-alcoholic mint julep, and reread an epic: it will take all summer and you’ll never be bored. Translating Virgil and Dante is completely absorbing, though juggling dictionaries and grammars can be awkward. English, however, may be read in the supine position. Paradise Lost is always a joy, but you may prefer the shorter Paradise Regained for its weird pinnacle imagery and intellectual and spiritual dialogue between Christ during his 40 days in the desert and Satan.


But this summer I'm not reading epic: my poet is the much maligned Renaissance lyric poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt. Recovering from a 30-mile bike ride in the heat and rain yesterday, I reclined on the couch and read at random all of Wyatt in The Oxford Book of English Verse. I quickly became an anthology expert and had to find a better book. The Essential Wyatt, selected by W. S. Merwin, was in our mud room. And what an improvement over the revered Oxford anthology, which has no critical introduction or biographical information! Merwin’s introduction is both personal and informative: during Merwin’s student days he was struck by Wyatt’s original verses, “and it was the cranky artistry not just of his prosody but of his language as a whole, its mixture of bluntness and grace, directness and song, that first drew me to his poetry.” He defends Wyatt’s irregular metrics, long condemned, and explains that they were championed in the 1930s by E. K. Chambers, who considered them a predecessor of Donne and Hopkins. Many of his poems are translations of Petrarch; many meant to be sung. Merwin also includes a brief bio and relays the titillating gossip about Wyatt’s love affair with Anne Boleyn (which should be taken with a grain of salt: it’s not so very different from Catullus’s alleged - and on little evidence - affair with Clodia: but three sixteenth-century accounts claim Wyatt confessed he had been Anne Boleyn’s lover and that she was not fit to marry Henry VIII.).

Wyatt was born in 1503, attended Cambridge, married Lord Cobham’s daughter at 17, became a diplomat at 22, and managed to escape from the Spanish when they imprisoned him on a diplomatic mission to Italy to see the pope - how he escaped Merwin does not say - and I, for one, am ready for a historical novel about this! He was imprisoned in the Tower in 1536 (Anne-related), but after his release his diplomatic career flourished until his friend and patron, Cromwell, was executed in 1540. Wyatt died in 1542.

Well, it's his poetry that impresses me. And here is a sonnet commonly interpreted as about Anne Boleyn. (Sorry about the placement of the lines: I can't get them to come out in the blog form.)


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.“

Note: The poetry is online, but sometimes it is translated into modern spelling - not necessarily a bad thing - and other times Wyatt's original spelling is mangled. So it's probably better to read the book.

4 comments:

Ellen said...

I like Wyatt; my favorite is "They fleeth from me, that sometime did me seeke ..." It's sometimes said to be to Anne Boleyn, but as you wisely say, we had better take this story with a grain of salt. Had she been so unchaste, Henry would have been told, and it would have meant mortal risk to Wyatt, never mind loss of promotions.

As I recall, he has some later satires that anticipate John Donne. I too want notes and introductions or I don't enjoy what I'm reading as much. We can't read in a vaccuum.

In turn I'll share a poem I read today. It's the words to the song Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslett) in the 1995 _S&S_ sings at the close of the film, while playing the piano Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) gifted her with.

By Ben Jonson where the smoothness differs from Wyatt, but not the intensity and vulnerable truth of the feeling:

"The Dream" by Ben Jonson

Or scorn, or pity on me take,
I must the true relation make,
I am undone to-night :
Love in a subtil dream disguised
hath both my heart and me surprised,
Whom never yet he durst attempt t' awake;
Nor will he tell me for whose sake
He did me the delight,
Or spite;
But leaves me to inquire,
In all my wild desire,
Of Sleep again, who was his aid,
And Sleep, so guilty and afraid,
As since he dares not come within my sight.

I too can't make the lines come out. Some are indented and the the lines without capitals are the rest of the previous line.

Ellen

Mad Housewife said...

I love "The Dream." Thank you! Perhaps I can fit in Jonson, too.

Wyatt is a bit of a challenge without notes. It's so nice to have Penguins with notes in the back, whether one needs them or not.

The picture is of a new edition by Faber & Faber (not the one I have).

The Anne Boleyn Files said...

'll have to read more of Wyatt's work, I've actually only read “V. Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei” about him witnessing Anne Boleyn's execution. From my research, I don't think that he and Anne Boleyn were ever lovers but that he admired her from afar or it was a case of unrequited love. Thanks for this poet, it's made me want to buy "The Essential Wyatt".

Mad Housewife said...

I am glad to hears something from the Anne Bolyen perspective. Any little rumor could send someone to the Tower. At least Wyatt got out. Poor Anne!

I like your web page, too.