He was a Wyatt

WyattI was talking to a friend at lunch yesterday about why it is that I like so much Sir Thomas Wyatt as a poet. A little bit of it, of course, is that he was rather a cool dude. Apart from anything else, having had an affair with Anne Boleyn before Henry VIII got interested in her was quite stylish.

He has always been rather underestimated I think, partly because at the time he was overshadowed by Surrey, and partly because William Shakespeare came along in the next generation and outdid everybody on the sonnet front. Wyatt is sometimes seen as a sort of historical curiosity, being one of the first English poets to adopt the sonnet form, which had been developed in Italy. Take this one of his sonnets for example:

Farewell, Love, and all thy laws for ever:
Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more.
Senec and Plato call me from thy lore,
To perfect wealth my wit for to endeavour.
In blind error when I did persever,
Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh aye so sore,
Hath taught me to set in trifles no store,
And scape forth, since liberty is lever.
Therefore farewell, go trouble younger hearts,
And in me claim no more authority;
With idle youth go use thy property,
And thereon spend thy many brittle darts.
For, hitherto though I’ve lost my time,
Me lusteth no longer rotten boughs to climb.

The conventional analysis is that it is in classic te tum tum te tum te tum te tum tum etc form, the Latins having scanned by the syllable, each syllable being treated either as long or short, with rhymes at the end of each line. And this poem does fit into that pattern, with every line a pentameter and the conventional abba,cddc,effe,gg rhyme pattern:

Farewell, Love, and all thy laws for ever:
Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more.
Senec and Plato call me from thy lore,
To perfect wealth my wit for to endeavour.
In blind error when I did persever,
Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh aye so sore,
Hath taught me to set in trifles no store,
And scape forth, since liberty is lever.
Therefore farewell, go trouble younger hearts,
And in me claim no more authority;
With idle youth go use thy property,
And thereon spend thy many brittle darts.
For, hitherto though I’ve lost my time,
Me lusteth no longer rotten boughs to climb.

But I have always thought this rather more to it than that. A lot of Wyatt’s poems read to me like songs, such as this one:

My lute awake! perform the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And end that I have now begun;
For when this song is sung and past,
My lute be still, for I have done.

The way that songs are put together is not the same way that poems are scanned. Instead, a lyricist looks for stresses – in other words particular syllables which are distinct and which get placed in the music in important places. Not every long syllable is stressed.  That is the essential structure, with unstressed syllables playing a supporting role.

Similarly, a lyricist is just as interested in alliteration as in rhymes. And in these respects, lyricists tend to look at lyrics in a way that is reminiscent of the early English four stress alliterative system verse, in which each line had four stresses, and there was a good deal of alliteration, typically but not always with the third stress.

What I think Thomas Wyatt was doing was something which had a foot in both camps. Not only did he put his sonnets in the conventional Italian form, but he also evoked the old four stress alliterative system. And so if I was setting this sonnet to music, I would be looking for four stresses in each line, and what we see is that there is a good deal of alliteration – not relentless, but much more than would arise by chance. On this basis, the sonnet would run something like this:

Farewell, Love, and all thy laws for ever:
Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more.
Senec and Plato call me from thy lore,
To perfect wealth my wit for to endeavour.
In blind error when I did persever,
Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh aye so sore,
Hath taught me to set in trifles no store,
And scape forth, since liberty is lever.
Therefore farewell, go trouble younger hearts,
And in me claim no more authority;
With idle youth go use thy property,
And thereon spend thy many brittle darts.
For, hitherto though I’ve lost my time,
Me lusteth no longer rotten boughs to climb.

Other people may not see it like this at all. That’s fine. But this is my explanation as to why I think Sir Thomas Wyatt was a great poet. I doubt if it would have been much good if he tried writing in Italian, but then again Italian is a rather mechanical language compared with English, English having a much more organic, some would say anarchic, quality. Which I rather like, and which I think old Tom liked too.

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