Some Penguin Classics feel almost like consolation prizes, and the lovely, rock-solid R. A. Rebholz edition of the complete poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt must certainly be considered one of those. This is no slight to Rebholz, who’s as creepily thorough and methodical an editor as only the tepid undergrowth of academia could produce. His clarifications leave one breathless:
In this edition, I have divided the poems into two sections: those in Wyatt’s hand, with revisions in his hand, or attributed to him in the sixteenth century, and those attributed to him after the sixteenth century. While I do not know with precision the dates in which manuscripts containing ‘sections’ of Wyatt’s poems were compiled, his poems were certainly written in them before 1600. In effect, then, I am distinguishing between poems for which there is external evidence of authorship in the form of Tudor attributions and poems ascribed to Wyatt by modern editors and critics on grounds of attitude, style, or presence in a manuscript that contains poems attributed to him. The different degrees of reliability of the external evidence render impossible any absolute certainty that all the poems in the fist section are in fact by Wyatt; and it is indeed possible that some or many of the poems in the second section are his: readers acquainted with Wyatt and the criticism of his poems may well think that CCXI and CCXVI are by him. The second item in the note on each poem presents the external evidence for his authorship, if any; I do not bother to call attention to the absence of such evidence unless the attribution seems particularly far-fetched.
And it isn’t for the sake of Wyatt’s verse itself that he would in all likelihood breathe a little second-best sigh at the sight of this volume. Wyatt wrote poems his whole life, from his early teens to his distracted prime of life, and that verse was pollinated by the sweet bees of the Renaissance a-borning. Wyatt was born in 1503 (in a castle purchased in 1492 by his parvenu father, who had bet his and his family’s entire future on picking the right horse in the Lancastrian sweepstakes – he picked Henry VII, suffered some for it, and was subsequently richly rewarded when his horse won), and by the time he was in his mid-twenties, he’d traveled to much of Europe and Italy and met many of its leading intellectuals and poets. Even a dense, witless man, having supped with Machiavelli and emptied wine bottles with Ariosto, would have felt the rush of new literary airs in his nostrils, and Thomas Wyatt (unlike his castle-buying father) was not at all a dense, witless man.
In Italy and France, he found a creative world bursting with new ideas and new interpretations of old ideas, and all of it mixed with his own poet’s soul (and the natural Tudor-era pigheaded English competitiveness) and made him long to make something new in English verse. Terza rima runs headlong into iambic tetrameter, and behind the veil we can almost see a charmingly incongruous picture of the fleshy-faced, eagle-eyed, hard-handed young Wyatt bent over his candlelight, parsing styles and indifferently counting out syllables. His verses are free of outright scholarship (thank the lord – only poetic genius a couple of orders of magnitude greater than Wyatt's can render scholarship into art, and the failures are gruesome to look upon), but oh, they still whiff of the sheer work that went into them – work and passion:
If amorous faith in heart unfeigned,
A sweet languor, a great lovely desire,
If honest will kindled in gentle fire,
If long error in a blind maze chained,
If in my visage each thought depainted,
Or else in my sparkling voice lower or higher
Which now fear, now shame, woefully doth tire,
If a pale colour which love hath stained,
If to have another than myself more dear,
If wailing or sighing continually,
With sorrowful anger feeding busily,
If burning afar off and freezing near
Are case that by love myself I destroy,
Yours is the fault and mine the great annoy.
Wyatt was writing in the full flood of a tradition even while he tried his best to English that tradition. Incongruities, as a result, crop up repeatedly (hence Gerald Bullett’s oft-repeated characterization of Wyatt – and his friend the Earl of Surrey – as ‘silver’ poets of the age rather than ‘gold’). But when Wyatt managed to match the lovely verse-precision he found in Italy with the particularly angry little snarl that animates so much Tudor writing (even civil court records often seem to spit off the page), he is unstoppable, the first clear clarion in English verse since Chaucer:
Hate whom ye list for I care not.
Love whom ye list and spare not.
Do what ye list and dread not.
Think what ye list and fear not.
For as for me I am not
But even as one that recketh not
Whether ye hate or hate not,
For in your love I dote not.
Wherefore I pray you forget not
But love whom ye list and spare not.
These and other verses (Rebholz’s edition is by far the greatest one-volume, common reader-friendly one there is or is ever likely to be: its acquisition by Penguin in 1978 was a typically decisive coup on their part) are the things that warrant Wyatt a Penguin Classic, and they’re the things that make it a Classic worth multiple bookmarks, worth tape-reinforcing, worth carrying into the sunny recesses of a nearby park on a warm day in order to proclaim these verses aloud as they demand.
But it’s a consolation prize anyway. Writing these poems, powerful and moving as so many of them are, was a pastime for Wyatt, as he would have been the first to admit. He was a vain man (as indeed is any man worth his spit, although the object of that vanity differs from person to person), so he wouldn’t disavow remembrance 500 years after his llifetime. But he’d hold his greatest achievement to be not literary but actuary: he survived.
Wyatt first entered Henry VIII’s court as an ewer at the age of 13 in 1516. At age 17 he married Elizabeth Brooke, the daughter of Lord Cobham, and his son Thomas was born rather hastily after that. All through the early 1520s, he and a coterie of other young bucks were always with the King, hunting, hawking, wrestling, jesting, composing music and riddles and poems, jesting loudly at late hours, jousting in elaborate tournaments (whose sheer violence would astound even faithful viewers of HBO’s The Tudors) – being boys together, and with that one inescapable feature of boyhood gangs: a magnetic, capricious leader.
Henry had been raised in the stiff formality of his father’s court, groomed for some high calling (ironists like to point to the Church) while his older brother Arthur studied kingship. The rarefied air of pomp was always bad for the Tudor brain (which had been programmed from time immemorial with more pragmatic data, like the smell of well-groomed horseflesh or the little gasp your man makes just as your dagger goes into his ear), breeding suspicion and false bonhomie in unhealthy tandem. Henry had it worse than any other Tudor, but in the early 1520s, it was possible for his boon companions , blinded by the genuine joy the young king could be, to miss the crucial fact that they were playing, as it were, with fire.
Wyatt more than any of them, because his aforementioned fleshy face and hard eyes were, in his 20s, matched with a lithe, muscular body and a lancing quick wit – he seemed every inch the king that Henry was, and around 1525 that fact caught the eye of a young lady-in-waiting named Anne Boleyn. She was fresh returned from the glittering court of France and thought she was free to have young men catch her eye, but in the 1520s she was beginning to conceive a bigger game at hand. True, courtiers like Wyatt were more or less openly besotted with her – but so was Henry himself, and his every nerve-ending was hyper-sensitive to any hint of competition.
In 1525, Wyatt divorced his wife, claiming she was unfaithful to him. In early 1526 he was sent on an embassy to France, and in 1527 he went on another embassy, this time to Italy. When he returned, in May of 1527, the fruits of his absence were in full bloom: Henry’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn, for two years unrivalled, was now the world’s most open secret.
Poor humiliated Queen Katherine asked the newly-returned poet to make her a translation of Petrarch’s Of the Remedies of Hard Fortune, and he set to work immediately. At a strong, growled word from Henry, he instead presented the Queen with a translation of Plutarch’s Peace of Mind. At his presentation, Wyatt was forced to plead that Petrarch’s verse was beyond him, and the King hoped his stubbornly righteous Queen got the point of her new text.
Wyatt was at the court again for a little over a year, making jokes at banquets, bantering word-play with other courtiers (only seldom now with the King, who less and less liked being shown up even in the friendliest of rivalries, not that he’d ever liked it much), and naturally conversing often with Anne Boleyn. Often enough that in 1528 he was ‘awarded’ the High Marshalship of Calais and required to stay there for two years. Upon his return, he was given some friendly advice by his new friend Thomas Cromwell, “go well they who go easy,” and some more pointed advice by his old friend the Royal kennel-keeper, that a lead dog will often castrate a rival before killing him.
He minded himself, and he was the picture of outward decorum when he – and the usual gaggle of courtiers – accompanied Henry and Anne to Calais in 1532. The next year he served at Anne’s coronation. There could scarcely be a clearer indication of the royal favor in which he stood, but in 1534 he got it: in May of that year, during a half-drunken fracas with the Sergeants of London, Wyatt managed to kill one of those worthies and was hauled off to Fleet prison in shame. And fifteen days later he was ordered released, pardoned, and granted the lifetime military command of Kent, plus the very pretty permission to fit out twenty men with his personal livery (he even asked the old kennel-keeper to be one of his twenty).
Honors continued to accrue (High Steward of the Abbey of West Malling, owner of Aryngden Park on let from the King, knighted, etc.), even while the sky darkened for all of his former fellow boon-companions. In 1536, Anne miscarried, and the last vestiges of the spell she’d cast over Henry slipped away. Into the void of his infatuation now rushed ice-cold vengeance, and a commission was placed in Cromwell’s hands to bring down Queen Anne. The method was to manufacture adulteries - and adulterers: William Brereton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston … even Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s brother … all were arrested and charged with having been her lovers. Anyone who had ever shared a wink or a knowing smile with Henry over this woman was now a galling reminder to him that he had once hoped for sons from her.
Nobody had smiled more on this point than Wyatt (they were smiles of pure self-defence), and he was arrested too – although separate from the others and never quite charged with them), parked in a Tower cell with an unobstructed view of Anne’s head getting sheared off, easy to hear the anguished cries of Brereton, Norris, Weston and the others as they were brought to their slaughter.
But he was freed. Freed, and given more honors – stewardships, livings, titles, and missions: in 1537 he was sent to court of the emperor Charles V and spent two years in Spain trying to keep Charles out of any alliance that might be harmful to England. He failed: Charles and the French king signed a ten-year peace treaty that completely excludes England, and Wyatt was accused by fellow commissioners of uttering treasonous quips about Henry during negotiations. Cromwell was again charged with trying the whole business, and in 1538 he found Wyatt innocent and dropped all the charges. In 1538 Wyatt was sent as ambassador to Charles again, again producing no positive results. That Henry’s foreign hopes were being frustrated at every turn is clear; his personal hopes were also, more famously, going nowhere: Jane Seymour had died giving him his sought-after heir, and in 1540 Henry was repulsed by the physical appearance of Anne of Cleves into hastily annulling their marriage.
Cromwell had championed that marriage and much of that foreign policy, and he was made to pay for the failure of all of it with his head. He was executed on 28 July (the day Henry married Catherine Howard), and before he died he cried out to his friend Wyatt in the crowd – legend has it that Wyatt’s tears prevented him from answering, although it’s difficult to imagine what answer he could have given that wouldn’t have been either a lie or a stupid lie.
Half a year later, Wyatt was arrested again, at Hampton Court, on the same charges that had been brought against him in 1538. This was a pattern as clear as any that ever involved Henry – and as deadly: the obviously vacated charges followed by the vicious charade of a trial, and then the axe. This pattern was not surprising to any at court, because all knew the angry, tactile, hungrily vindictive thing Henry had become. One by one, virtually every single person who’d ever been close to Henry in any capacity had been caught in the jaws of that pattern and utterly destroyed. As Wyatt sat in chains awaiting his trial, he could see the initials carved into the stone walls of his chamber – carved with desperate workings hour after hour by all who had preceded him in thinking themselves out of danger with this King.
And yet, he was acquitted. Acquitted, and showered with more honors. When Henry executed Catherine Howard, he gave Wyatt many of the livings and positions that had been held by Thomas Culpeper, her accused lover. He was given royal manors in many counties. And when the emperor sent an envoy to Falmouth, Wyatt was given the embassy to ride out in haste and greet the man.
He fell ill during that ride and died on 11 October of 1542, thick in the King’s business to the end, but it isn’t even that service he’d likely call his life’s great achievement: no, the neatest trick of his entire life was the sheer tenacity of managing to get through it. Time and again, bad luck and royal suspicion brought him right to the precipice. Time and again, he watched men and women more powerful than he fall off that lethal edge. But somehow, every time, a weird and loyal luck saw him through. Brought alive today and presented with this lovely Penguin Classic of his verses, he would likely grunt and say, “Yes, but mainly I lived.” He’d mean it in all senses of the word, and he'd count that his best monument, and he sometimes risked its mention:
Lucks, my fair falcon, and your fellows all,
How well pleasant it were your liberty!
Ye not forsake me that fair might ye befall.
But they that sometime liked my company
Like lice away from dead bodies they crawl.
Lo, what a proof in light adversity!
But ye, my birds, I swear by all your bells,
Ye be my friends and so be but few else.