Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the
earl of Surrey
(MSS. from ca. 1500-1547,
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,
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
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
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 dreaded?
- 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
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"
"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
For the Luminarium page containing a manuscript diplomatic letter from Wyatt to Henry
VIII reporting affairs regarding the French court and the Pope, click