Born to Henry and Anne Wyatt at Allington Castle, near Maidstone, Kent, in 1503, Thomas Wyatt made his first appearance at the royal court in 1516 as Sewer Extraordinary to Henry VIII. In 1516 he also entered St. John’s College, University of Cambridge. Around 1520, he took his M. A., and at the age of seventeen, he married Lord Cobham’s daughter Elizabeth Brooke. She bore him a son, Thomas Wyatt, the Younger, in 1521. He was at favorite at court and carried out several foreign missions for King Henry VIII. Sir Thomas Wyatt was an ambassador to France and Italy. He accompanied Sir Thomas Cheney on a diplomatic mission to France in 1526 and Sir John Russell to Venice and the papal court in Rome in 1527. He was made High Marshal of Calais (1528-1530) and Commissioner of the Peace of Essex in 1532. Wyatt’s travels abroad exposed him to different forms of poetry, which he adapted for the English language — most notably, the sonnet.
Around 1525, Wyatt separated from his wife, charging her with adultery; it is also the year from which his interest in Ann Boleyn probably dates. (Rebholz, R. A., Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems. New York, Penguin, 1994). Also in 1532, Wyatt accompanied King Henry and Anne Boleyn, who was by then the King’s mistress, on their visit to Calais. Anne Boleyn married the King in January 1533, and Wyatt served in her coronation in June.
Wyatt was presented a knighthood n 1535, but soon fell out of favor and in 1536 he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for quarreling with the Duke of Suffolk. It was also rumored that Wyatt was one of Anne Boleyn’s lovers, and he spent a month in the Tower until Boleyn’s execution for adultery. As part of his imprisonment, from the Bell Tower, Wyatt witnessed the execution of Anne Boleyn on 19 May 1536. During that time, he V. Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei.
V. Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei.
by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder
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.2
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.
These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.
The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.
By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.
(The Latin title adapts Psalm 16.9: “My enemies surround my soul.” Also note that Wyatt’s name (“Vial” in the title is surrounded by “Innocence,” “Truth,” and “Faith.”) (Luminarium)
He was released later that year. Many consider his poem “Whoso List to Hunt” to be about Boleyn. 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.
Wyatt was returned to favor and made ambassador to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in Spain. He returned to England in June 1539, and later that year was again ambassador to Charles until May 1540. Wyatt’s praise of country life, and the cynical comments about foreign courts, in his verse epistle Mine Own John Poins derive from his own experience.
In 1541 Wyatt was charged with treason on a revival of charges originally leveled against him in 1538 by Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London. Bonner claimed that while ambassador, Wyatt had been rude about the King’s person, and had dealings with Cardinal Pole, a papal legate and Henry’s kinsman, with whom Henry was much angered over Pole’s siding with papal authority in the matter of Henry’s divorce proceedings from Katharine of Aragón. Wyatt was again confined to the Tower, where he wrote an impassioned ‘Defence’. He received a royal pardon, perhaps at the request of then queen, Catharine Howard, and was fully restored to favor in 1542. Wyatt was given various royal offices after his pardon, most notably he was made Commander of the Fleet. He fell ill after welcoming Charles V’s envoy at Falmouth and died at Sherborne on 11 October 1542.
On his journey to Italy in 1527, Wyatt became enthralled with the works of Italian love poets, most prominently Petrarch and Serafino dell’ Aquila. His translation of Petrarch produced the first group of sonnets in English. His Seven Penitential Psalms are a close imitation of the work of Aretino.
“The Lover Compareth His State to a Ship in Perilous Storm” is one of Wyatt’s best known and most typical of sonnets. In it, the unhappy lover is like a ship tossed by waves. In the extended metaphor his sighs are like the winds, the disdain of his sweetheart like the dark clouds, and his tears are the rainstorm. Meanwhile in “A Renouncing of Love,” another sonnet, the poet prefers liberty to love and orders love to leave him and other troubled young lovers.
In “Forget Not Yet the Tried Intent,” the reader finds one of the finest lyrics (of the time) in English. Simplicity, grace, and sincerity mark Wyatt’s style. The lover asks his mistress to remember his anguish, his patience, and his steadfast faith. The change of the refrain “Forget not yet” to “Forget not this” at the end of the lyric is unexpected and appropriate. It adds emphasis and clinches the idea of the poem. It is a subtle stroke of art.
“Of the Mean and Sure Estate” is an epistolary (letter) poem. The story told here is that of the country mouse who visits her modish sister in town. The country mouse pays dearly for the luxury of the town for which she has left the peaceful country. She is caught by a cat. “And so you see, dear Poins,” says Wyatt to the friend to whom he writes, “Each kind of life hath with him his disease. Content yourself with your fortune, for in the end your only happiness will be found in your mind.”
Wyatt wrote a wide variety of verse, sonnets, epigrams, satires, moralizings, elegies, and pastorals. Some of his poems are on court life, though most deal with love. His verse is vigorous and sometimes rough, displaying the struggle with the new medium – New English. Wyatt wrote no memorable poems, but he blazed the track for future English poetry, and it was through the sonnet that lyricism again entered English verse.
Heale, Elizabeth. Wyatt, Surrey, and Early Tudor Poetry. London ; New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998.