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What was Thomas Wyatt’s effect on English poetry?

It helps to know Middle English or to have a glossary handy to fully appreciate Chaucer (1343-1400):

In al the route was ther young ne oold

That he ne seyde it was a noble storie,

And worthy for to drawen to memorie;

But by the time of Donne (1572-1631) all is plain sailing:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,

Why dost thou thus,

Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?

What happened to English verse in between? The answer is in this book – courtly love and lyric poetry. The best practitioner in this mode was Sir Thomas Wyatt and his best known (and best?) poem, ‘They Flee From Me’, is familiar to anyone who ‘did’ English at university when recognisable courses in literature were still being studied:

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 themselves in danger

To take bread at my hand; and now they range,

Busily seeking with a continual change.

One of Nicola Shulman’s concerns is to trace the effect of Wyatt’s poetry on the development, sexualisation and secularisation of English verse. Another is to rehabilitate Wyatt, who fell out of favour for centuries, critics finding his lines awkward and trivial. If that were all it did the book would be of interest only to scholars in this field. But Shulman attempts, and succeeds, at doing a great deal more.

Probably no period in British history has held popular interest as much as the Tudor era. Think of the several television treatments of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I; the biopics on Elizabeth including two with our Cate, one excellent, the other a complete turkey. There have been classy films like A Man for all Seasons and Anne of the Thousand Days and more recently Tudor novels by C J Sansom and Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel.

Shulman has tapped straight into this interest by tracing, through the latest research, some of the major events of the 1530s and 1540s – Henry’s pathetic war against France, the breakdown of his marriage to Katharine of Aragon, the English reformation, the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell and the factional struggles among the nobility associated with Henry’s subsequent marriages. Thomas Wyatt was involved more than peripherally in most of these events and he wrote about them.

Shulman shows that Wyatt’s lyrics refer, often cryptically, to his love for Anne Boleyn, his two periods of imprisonment where he came close to execution, his association with Cromwell, whose man he was, and his diplomatic manoeuvres in Europe as Henry wriggled in and out of alliances. She demonstrates that Henry was himself a lover and writer of courtly love lyrics and valued Wyatt highly for his ability.

Her portraits of Wyatt, Cromwell and Henry are sharp and insightful. Paranoid Henry, she says, suspected his conservative supporters for their conservatism and distrusted his progressive adherents for their progressiveness. At times Cromwell appeared to have complete control of Henry’s marital ventures and thought it possible he ‘could lead him to service in any stall’. Wyatt, who lied and connived abroad, as ambassadors did and do, and tried to contrive the assassination of one of Henry’s opponents, is likened to James Bond. A bit of a stretch perhaps, but Wyatt certainly packed a lot of action of one kind or another – he admitted he did not profess chastity – into his 39 years.

The book reads as part literary criticism, part narrative history and part dramatic reconstruction. When you read that the prosecutor took care to ensure that he enlisted an incompetent headsman to execute his enemy Cromwell, you know you have the true Tudor flavour. It was a time when the English nobility might collectively have had as a motto ‘No one gets out of here alive’.

Wyatt the poet is not to be confused with his son of the exact same name and title who participated in a rebellion against Mary Tudor and was executed. This extinguished the family fortunes and the name does not surface again in history until the gunfight at the OK Corral.

Nicola Shulman Graven with Diamonds: the many lives of Sir Thomas Wyatt, courtier, poet, assassin, spy Short Books, 378pp HB $49.99.

If you would like to purchase this book from Better Read Than Dead, click here.

If you would like to see if it is available through Newtown Library, click here