Thomas Wyatt at StAnza
This is the text of a talk I gave on my favourite poet at the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
I think I was about twelve when I first came across this in an anthology, and Wyatt had me from hello. What entranced me more than anything else were the rhythms: the massively heavy mid-line pauses brought about by missing syllables in the basic iambic pattern. Sometimes the missing syllable is, or would be, stressed – "That now are wild and do not remember"; sometimes unstressed – "with naked foot stalking in my chamber". Either way, the absence creates a strong caesura and throws a great weight on to the next word. Then there's line 3, which, slice it how you will, isn't iambic at all; it's a trochaic line in the middle of an iambic verse. At the time I was learning scansion from a helpful appendix in a Louis Untermeyer anthology of English verse, and what Wyatt showed, to me, was that rules were there to be subverted and departed from. The basic pattern might be iambic, but completely regular iambics would bore the ear. What Wyatt's irregularities did was to give the whole thing not only more energy and pace but also a natural tone; he sounded like a man speaking, not like a man writing a poem.
I didn't know then, of course, that in his own time and for long after it, Wyatt was much criticised for his metrical irregularity; in fact after his death several ill-advised editors spent time trying to smooth out what they saw as his roughness. That fourth line, for instance, became "that now are wild, and do not once remember": the inserted syllable "once" not only unnecessary but ruining the huge and deliberate pause that throws the weight on to the word "remember".
As Joost Daalder says in his introduction to Wyatt's Collected Poems, "it is evident from more than one of Wyatt's revisions that he had no consistent desire to make his lines iambic and any attempt to read all of his verse as though he had is doomed to frustration". I think many have tried to read him as if he were the natural forerunner of intensely musical songwriter poets like Dowland or Campian, shaping their words to the lute in their head as they wrote and creating, essentially, a verbal music. He can, in fact, do just that when it suits him, as witness poems like "And wilt thou leave me thus", in which he is more interested in the sound of the words than the sense, to the extent that in the first verse there is one dominant vowel sound, a long "a". This verse is regular enough to satisfy the strictest metricalist:
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay, for shame,
To save thee from the blame
Of all my grief and grame;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!
If he had wanted to do this all the time, using words as one might musical notes, he could have done. But mostly he reads, to me, far less like a proto-Campian than a proto-John Donne, in whose head ideas are crowding so fast that they spill out pell-mell on to the page, frequently confusing the syntax. There are a lot of occasions, in Wyatt, when you can feel instinctively what he wants to get across, but if you try to analyse the grammar and syntax he has actually used, it doesn't say that; in fact it often doesn't say anything coherent, because in the manner of poets like Donne or Rilke he has left out several logical steps in his urgency to get to the point, trusting that they will somehow reassemble themselves in the reader's head. They do, too, most of the time.
Nor Flanders' cheer letteth not my sight to deem
Of black and white, nor taketh my wit away
With beastliness, they beasts do so esteem
(From Satire I: translation, essentially: nor does over-indulgence in alcohol, so popular in the Low Countries, stop me knowing black from white or replace my brains with beastliness, as you might expect from folk who use animals so much as models in painting.)
These days, people have mercifully stopped trying to iron out Wyatt's metrical irregularities and instead see his subtle, driven rhythms for the beauty they are. But the poor man now comes in for a different criticism: namely that he uses many conventional phrases and themes. An age that over-values "originality" is intolerant of complaints about cruel ladies and the wheel of fortune, and sceptical about the sincerity of condemnations of court life from a courtier.
Yet it is odd that this age, which also over-values sincerity, and real, as opposed to artistic, truth, cannot see that now and again, conventional themes and tropes may reflect the poet's own experience, and in this case it is hardly Wyatt's fault if his life reads like a blend of courtly love epic and mediaeval morality play. If ever there was a poet who had reason to write of being forsaken in love, it was the one who divorced his wife for adultery and whose earlier flame had left him for a king. And a man whose career alternated diplomatic missions with spells in prison and who witnessed from his cell window the executions of several of his friends can surely be permitted an odd mention of the wheel of fortune – to quote Daalder again: "it is perfectly possible for a poet to share the feelings which a traditional phrase expresses, his use of such a phrase is no sign of insincerity on his part. But the real test of a poem's merit is not whether the poet uses conventional elements or really feels what he says; it is whether or not the poem is in its own right a successful artefact".
To be that, I think a man who is using his own life as material (and there is no doubt that Wyatt often does) must manage to universalise his experience to some degree; he must look in it for what is not merely personal to him but shared and recognisable to others. And to do that, he may very well look to images and motifs familiar from classical or folk writing. I think Wyatt does just that in his poem "Whoso list to hunt", a loose translation of a Petrarch poem, in which he figures a loved but unattainable woman as a deer, uncatchable at least by him. The lines
There is written her fair neck round about
"Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am"
are in the original: what Petrarch means by them is that Laura belongs to God and will soon return to him; she is for no man. For Wyatt, given other poems he was writing and translating at the time, it is pretty clear that Caesar is not God but Henry VIII, and our deer, on one level, is Anne Boleyn. But Wyatt's doomed pursuit of Anne is not the only way to interpret this image. In folk-song, a white deer sometimes appears to a man who at all costs should not chase it, because he has important business on hand. Nevertheless he is so captivated that he does follow it, fails to catch it and finds on his return that some disaster has happened in his absence. I can't help but feel that, though this lyric began as a translation of Petrarch and continued in Wyatt's own experience, this ancient folk motif is also at the back of it and can speak not merely to rejected admirers of Anne Boleyn but to all who have ever pursued an unattainable dream.
Indeed this universalising of a personal experience worked so well in the poem "The pillar perished is whereto I leant" that in Richard Tottel's Songes and Sonettes (1557) it was collected under the title "The lover laments the death of his love", an idea that would have been a surprise to Wyatt but a bigger one to his patron Thomas Cromwell, whose execution this poem is now thought to concern. If Wyatt is to be criticised for writing conventional courtly love poems, his critics might at least first make sure that this is what he is doing.
It isn't, either, as though an individual voice and personality does not come through his treatment of this theme. The problem for readers and commentators looking for it may be that it is somewhat unexpected. This sensuous love poet, who kept a long-term mistress and was the rejected suitor of a queen, is, at heart, a bit of a prude. If he harps on about fidelity, that is not just out of convention but because he genuinely believes in it as a good. Granted, it is not one he himself always achieved, but it is possible for a man to admire and advocate virtues he does not consistently practise, without being on that account a hypocrite. Certainly in Satire 3, which concerns how to get rich and why Wyatt doesn't think he ever will, there are lines which seem to glance with distaste at the way, in Henry VIII's court, men were prepared to advance by making their female relatives freely available to the king:
In this also see thou be not idle
Thy niece, thy cousin, thy sister or thy daughter,
If she be fair, if handsome by her middle,
If thy better hath her love besought her,
Advance his cause, and he shall help thy need:
It is but love, turn it to a laughter.
"Thy niece, thy cousin, thy sister or thy daughter". Neither the Duke of Norfolk nor Sir Thomas Boleyn had much time for poetry, and given that Henry's mistresses Mary and Anne were the nieces of the former and the daughters of the latter, it is perhaps just as well. The bitterness in those lines does not strike me as merely conventional, and nor does his equally surprising, but often repeated, distaste for drunkenness and gormandizing. I don't know whether Henry's court really was the roistering place we tend to imagine, but for sure, Wyatt was the last man you'd want to invite to an orgy.
There's no doubt that the parallels between Wyatt's eventful life and his work add interest to the poems. But in the end what drew and still draws me to them was, firstly, the individual voice – stubborn, slightly edgy, resentful of his lack of worldly success yet unwilling to compromise who and what he was for it – and, even more, what you might call phrasemaking, though it goes deeper than that: his uncanny ability to say a thing in a few words so memorable, their rhythms and imagery so perfectly judged, that you think it could never be done better. When he speaks of love:
For never worms have an old stock eaten
As he my heart, where he is alway resident
or of his friends, failing to visit him during his imprisonment
But they that some time liked my company,
Like lice away from dead bodies they crawl
or even of the alarming sight that met the country mouse in town:
Under a stool she spied two steaming eyes
In a round head with sharp ears
it's as if, once again, I were twelve and hearing his work for the first time. Which is why I shall stop talking about him now and leave him to speak for himself.
Madam, withouten many words
Once I am sure: ye will, or no.
And if ye will, then leave your bourds
And use your wit, and tell me so.
And with a beck ye shall me call,
And if of one that burns alway,
Ye have any pity at all,
Answer him fair with yea or nay.
If it be yea, I shall be fain,
If it be nay, friends as before.
Ye shall another man obtain,
And I mine own, and yours no more.