Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey (MSS. from ca. 1500-1547,  editio princeps, Songes and Sonnettes (London: Richard Tottel, 1557)

Genre: All of these are technically "lyric verse," except Wyatt's verse satire ("Mine Own John Poins") and Surrey's translation from Virgil's Aeneid II.  The term comes from Greek poetry where it defined poems made to be sung to the strumming of a lyre or small harp.  The English favored the lute, a cousin of the guitar, so many of these poems might better be called "lute songs."  If they actually had music, it has been lost, however, so they exist only as shadows of their original composition.  The lute song, Wyatt's most common genre, may be in varying rhyme schemes and meters but generally tends toward short, trimeter or tetrameter lines with refrains.  The sonnet (from French, "little song"), which both Wyatt and Surrey adapted from Petrarch, is a lyric probably not meant for instrumental accompaniment and reliably composed of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.  For a guide to the growth of the sonnet, including comparisons between Petrarch's sonnets in Italian, a Modern English translation, and Wyatt's and Surrey's adaptation in Early Modern English, click here.  For some thoughts about how interpreting lyric poems is like being in the audience of a very dangerous, very moving rock and roll concert, click here.

Characters: The "character" of the lyric's speaker is a curious thing.  T.S. Eliot, in "The Three Voices of Poetry," argued that the first or lyric voice was like that of the poet, him or herself, but overheard in the act of speaking to some other hearer, to an allegorized idea, or to some inanimate part of the world.  Wyatt, for instance, appears to talk to his lute ("My Lute, Awake") and Surrey utters a strikingly familiar warrior's "boast" of loyalty in the presence of "Love," whom he calls "my lord."  Sometimes the lyric's speaker declares madness, rejection, hatred, as well as passionate love, but in all instances the author's position must be treated as something necessarily separate from the speaker's.  The division may be tissue thin (see "Who list his ease and wealth maintain" p. 534) but these are not testimonies under oath.

The lyric also may contain characters: a deer, ladies of the court, friends who ask questions the lyric answers, even kings whom the lyric may address obliquely.  The reader often is lured into taking on the position of these characters as the speaker addresses them as "you."  In some cases, as in the famous one of Wyatt's translation of the Penitential Psalms while in dire disfavor with Henry VIII, it is nearly impossible to tell who is meant when the speaker, Wyatt or David?,  pleads with "my lord" for forgiveness.  At other times, the identity of the character is revealed by knowledge the poet would presume his courtly audience would possess as "insiders" in a tightly knit, even paranoid, culture.  For instance, a Wyatt poem saluting "my falcon" and her fellow birds of prey on their freedom from his position of confinement almost certainly refers to Anne Boleyn and members of her affinite, who wore the image of a falcon on the badges that identified them.   The "white hind" of "Whoso list to hunt" almost certainly is Anne Boleyn, as the poet's situation and the message on the deer's collar makes clear.  However, the deer's collar contains a message describing the deer from the perspective of her "Caesar," i.e., ruler, i.e., Henry VIII, Wyatt's and Anne's king, who also is a shadowy "character" in that poem.  In effect, "Henry"'s voice takes over from the narrator's voice and ends the poem (and the hunt) with a sinister warning about Anne's wildness (also see the metaphors in "They flee from me").  A similar "cameo role" performance is played by "him," the courtier who is suddenly killed in Wyatt's translation of the second chorus from Seneca's Thyestes (538). For the falcon badge and contemporary portraits of Anne Boleyn, sometime lover of Wyatt and mother of Elizabeth I, click here.  This site is maintained by a very good amateur historian of Tudor culture named Lara E. Eakins, and many photographs of portraits and places relevant to the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I.  Click on these hyperlinks for images of falcons and bells.

Plot Summary: All the poems imply or express dramatic circumstances, but many require interpretation to make them intelligible.   Explain them to yourself briefly in writing, and if you cannot, contact me soon.  Unless you understand the implied circumstances of the lyric, you will have a very hard time understanding what you are "overhearing."  Make use of the Norton's explanatory footnotes after you've read the poem through once.  For instance, in "Whoso list to hunt," the chilling inscription on the "hind"'s collar mentioned above would be far less emotionally impressive for a reader who did not realize that it was expressing the perfectly lethal will of Henry VIII.  Thus, the poem mimics the whispered, metaphorical advice given by an experienced courtier to a newcomer who first had caught sight of the most beautiful and free-thinking woman at court.

Issues and general research sources:

  1. Wyatt's and Surrey's poems were among the first   lyrics from the courtiers' manuscript tradition to find their way into mass-production print in the form of the poetry collection traditionally called "Tottel's Miscellany" (1557).  You will note that the manuscript versions of Wyatt's lyrics are considerably rougher in meter and rhyme than those published by the printer, Richard Tottel (see, for instance, "They Flee from Me" and Tottel's version, "The Lover Showeth..." on pp. 529-30).
    • What kinds of changes did Tottel make to achieve this affect, and what did that do to the sense of Wyatt's meaning?
    • What are the limits you expect to control an editor's freedom in changing an artist's words?
    • Why?
    • Tottel's title, as the Norton editors remind us (570), is Songs and Sonnets written by the Right Honorable Lord Henry Howard Late Early of Surrey and Other.  Why was Wyatt "Other" when most of the poems in the collection were his?  Don't limit yourself to the Norton explanation.
  2. Secrecy was a routine requirement for poems written in this mileau.  In fact, some poets wrote poems about it (e.g., Wyatt's "Whoso list his wealth and ease retain" and "Stand whoso list").  Henry (and his son and daughters) closely controlled the marriages of the young men and women at court, trying to prevent the growth of family alliances which might challenge Tudor power and to encourage alliances which would support it.
    • If the whole idea of being a court poet in the manuscript tradition was to keep emotions, especially romantic relationships, a secret, why write the poems that give them away?
    • What kind of game of concealment and revelation is the poet playing, and how might this relate to the game of love, itself?
    • "Love" in late Middle English and Early Modern English often was used to describe the relations between political allies at court.  One's "good lord" would express "love" and "trust" to the courtier in return for loyal service, though (like erotic lovers) one might betray the other by contracting an alliance with a third party.  What kind of game is politics in such a world, and how might erotic love relationships be figurative or even literal factors in the political game?
    • Among Wyatt's poems are several riddles and works with cleverly concealed alternate or additional meanings.  Think about how the political situation in the Tudor court makes any lyric a riddle to be solved.
  3. Among the problems scholars face when reading lyric poems is the unstable relationship between the poem's speaker or narrator, and the historical identity of the poet.  Remember the "Chaucer-the-Pilgrim" problem.  Lyric poets can and do create personas (personae) or masks of other personalities which they inhabit for the creation of the poem.  In some cases, Wyatt's and Surrey's poems are so filled with verifiable historical data that connects the speaker to them that it is almost impossible that they did not mean the poem to be read as an expression of their own thoughts and feelings.  Even so, poems are not affadavits sworn on oath.  They are works of art.  Turning life into literary art always re-presents the life elements within the conventions and inventions of literature. At other times, the poet and the speaker seem clearly at odds with each other, as when Surrey takes on a female persona to lament the absence of her husband ("You happy dames"), or when Wyatt's speaker in "They flee from me" seems passionately embittered to find himself abandoned by the wild young women he apparently had formerly seduced.  Which poems seem most "autobiographical," and in those, where do you see the poet's artistic imagination enhancing lived experience.
  4. Although Wyatt and Surrey are lyric poets like the Greeks, though using a lute instead of the classical Greek lyre, their socio-political situation is immensely different from the radically free, democratic classical Greeks who sang fearing only the gods.  (Stesichorus was said to have been blinded by Aphrodite for singing a slanderous poem about Helen, and to have been cured after composing one which explained Helen's behavior as a result of Aphrodite's power.  Archilochus, spurned by the daughter of a wealthy man because he was a mere soldier, was said to have written poems so savage that father and daughter hung themselves in shame.)  Wyatt and Surry, however, live under the rule of a king who eventually comes to command both the English state and the Church of England.  A "super-reader" like Henry VIII, or his most powerful ministers of state (first More, then Cromwell, then the Privy Council) was the unintended co-reader of every document produced at the court, and even documents written in the far corners of the realm, supplied to the king by his secret agents.  In one case, Lord Lisle's daughter's inconvenient love affair with a French nobleman was discovered by retreiving love letters that had been thrown into the "jakes" or toilet-cistern of the Lisle household (Lisle Letters 401-4).  The manuscripts in which the Norton poems circulated--Blage, Egerton, Devonshire, and Arundel--were like time bombs.  Some poems were entirely innocent, but others were lethal.  All were anonymous, identifiable as Wyatt's or Surrey's only by style or suggested to be Wyatt's by the occasional scribbled marginal "V" ("Viatus" or Wyatt Latinized).  Poems recopied by the manuscripts' temporary possessors would be dangerous to owner and author.  Poems remembered by readers could harm noone unless sung or whispered to the wrong ears.  Which poems will you remember to distinguish Wyatt from Surrey?  Which poems had the kind of real power to move the court, the power which Henry and his ministers might have attacked?
  5. Because these poems were originally written for manuscript circulation, the Norton editors wisely have taken (as of about the fourth edition) to reproduce the manuscript versions rather than Tottel's edition.  Still, they are editors, themselves, and they make the same kinds of modernizing decisions about reproducing the poems that Tottel did.  See the online digitized facsimile of the Devonshire Manuscript, in which you can find many of Wyatt's poems.  The Renaissance hand takes some getting used to, but if you know what poem you are reading from the Norton text, keep clicking on the MS image until you get it as highly magnified as you can and read along.  Notice the punctuation modern editors have added.  Bravi, bravi, bravi, you Devonshire digital scholars!  You have done a great thing.

For the Luminarium page containing a contemporary Hans Holbein portrait of Wyatt, click here.

Another visual image to which Wyatt may be referring in line 8 of "Whoso list his wealth and ease retain" might be the popular image from the "Dance of Death" sequence, "Death comes for the Gentleman" from Hans Holbein's woodcut series

For the Luminarium page containing a manuscript of "Forget Not Yet" (Norton ed. 532) thought to be in Wyatt's hand, click here.

For the Luminarium page containing a manuscript diplomatic letter from Wyatt to Henry VIII reporting affairs regarding the French court and the Pope, click here.

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