Poet, Politician and Schemer

Too often Thomas Wyatt's poetry is ignored in favour of biography, but not in Susan Brigden's fantastic new study

David Womersley

Towards the end of his life, Thomas Wyatt viewed the approach of late spring with a measure of foreboding:

Sephame saide true that my natiuitie

Mischaunced was with the ruler of the May:

He gest I prove of that the veritie.

In May my welth and eke my liff I say

Have stoude so oft in such perplexitie:

Reioyse! let me dreme of your felicitie.

Edward Sephame, the astrologer who cast a horoscope for Edward VI, was never more accurate than when, as the poem suggests, he also cast a horoscope for Wyatt; for May does indeed seem to have been a difficult month for the poet and courtier. In May 1534, he was briefly imprisoned in the Fleet for his part in a brawl that had led to the death of one of the serjeants of London. Two years later, and much more alarmingly, he was imprisoned in the Tower and detained there until mid-June, caught up in the repercussions of the fall of Anne Boleyn.  But, in truth, the condition of “perplexitie” was chronic rather than seasonal with Wyatt.

He was born into a family that had gambled on the vicious dynastic politics of the late 15th century, and won handsomely. His father, Sir Henry Wyatt, had been a supporter of the Tudors since before the accession of Richard III, and had suffered imprisonment at Yorkist hands. After 1485 a trusted courtier of Henry VII, he had been given important administrative and military responsibilities, and had suffered a second time for his Tudor loyalties when, as governor of Carlisle, he was imprisoned for two years and held to ransom by the Scots. He was one of those to whom the new King Henry VIII turned in 1509; he was knighted and made a member of the Privy Council. Sir Henry Wyatt had played the desperately dangerous game of court life with sobriety and success, knowing when to hazard, when to consolidate, and—most importantly—when to withdraw.

Thomas Wyatt had his father’s example before him, but he could never follow it. A number of his poems, and the early prose work he wrote for Katherine of Aragon, a translation of Plutarch’s “De Tranquillitate Et Securitate Animi”, reveal an interest in Stoic strategies for mitigating the power that externalities of fortune and accident might exert over men. But although Wyatt repeatedly explored that stoical world in writing, and perhaps paid it fleeting visits in life, he never took up residence there. Even a poem such as the satire “Myne owne Jhon poyntz”, which on the surface reads as a bitter renunciation of all the base and tawdry arts of the court, can, with just a slight turn of perspective, read more like the memories of a temporarily sidelined exponent. Certainly, if it is true that Wyatt was involved in a plot to assassinate Cardinal Pole by means of poisonand Pole certainly thought that Wyatt had been sanctioned to do sothen there was not much in the way of courtly nefariousness at which Wyatt would strain. A greater brilliance of mind, a more complicated sense of loyalty, and a more unruly restlessness of disposition ensured that Wyatt could never follow his father down the path of prudent and steady self-enrichment.  The son would gamble much more recklessly than the father, if not necessarily for    higher stakes. Wyatt’s was an unsettled disposition, and it was this fundamental characteristic that his fellow-poet, the Earl of Surrey, placed at the head of the epitaph he wrote for his dead friend:

Wyat resteth here, that quick could never rest.

By enshrining it in a single sentence and a single line, Surrey invites us to see unease as the cardinal element in Wyatt’s character.

Susan Brigden begins her brilliant, imaginative account of Wyatt with a thoughtful and delicate reading of Surrey’s poem. It is an opening which announces one of her book’s central strengths, namely the quality of the attention it brings to the verse of Wyatt and his contemporaries. Too often Wyatt’s poetry has been crudely mined for biographical information, usually to confirm the rumour that the poet had been a lover of Anne Boleyn before her marriage to Henry VIII. Brigden is never guilty of either that simplicity, or the inverse simplicity of denying any linkage between the life and the work. Guided instead by the insight that, perhaps particularly in a Renaissance court, poetic composition might be a crucible within which identity could be compounded, purified, or imaginatively explored, she approaches Wyatt’s verse in a spirit of cherishing fastidiousness, on which none of the shifting and partial qualities of these often enigmatic poems, written out of and devoted to “perplexitie”, is wasted. Her attentiveness to the physical details of manuscripts is especially rewarding. Of the manuscript in which Wyatt begins his paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms, and struck by the evidence its erasures and interlineations supply of an urgent process of rewriting and re-thinking, she says: “Contemplating the divine hand on David and David’s attempts to reach his God, Wyatt is pondering the doctrines at the heart of Reformation debates, and as he examines David’s sin and seeming helplessness before divine grace, as he tests and tries each contested word, he is discovering his own belief as he writes.”

Allied to that delicacy of reading is exceptional scholarly reach and power. Time and again throughout this book just the right detail, often taken from the work of another poet, or found in a remote manuscript, is placed so as to shed the maximum amount of lightwhich, in Wyatt’s case, is usually also to show the encroachment of new shadows.

Faber have made this book a sumptuous thing in its own right, generously illustrated and beautifully designed. Like the bejewelled collar round the neck of the hind in “Whoso list to hount”, Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest is a gorgeous object pointing, rather in the fashion of a manicule in the margin of a manuscript, towards the cruelties and complexities of the Tudor court; cruelties and complexities which were both Wyatt’s element, and his subject.

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