Issue 161, Spring 2002
But as for me, helas, I may no more:
The vayne travaill hath weried me so sore.
I ame of theim that farthest commeth behinde;
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore,
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore
Sins in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,
As well as I may spend his tyme in vain;
And, graven with Diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
Noli me tangere for Cesars I ame;
And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame.
W.S. MERWIN: I think this is probably the greatest sonnet Wyatt wrote, and I think it's one of the greatest sonnets in English. I've known it for so many years, but it always startles me with the real strength of passion in it-and irony and freshness of language and the mixture of sensual feeling and bitterness that runs through the best of Wyatt. Take that first line-the whole courtly feeling about the opposite sex, which angers, quite rightly, the feminists-the pursuit of women becomes a kind of predacious pursuit: If hunting is what you want to do, I know a deer who'll keep you busy. The speculation is that it's about Anne Boleyn, and it may well be; it's certainly about a very elusive and uncatchable person.
JASON SHINDER: What is known about Wyatt's alleged love affair with Anne Boleyn?
MERWIN: We don't know much about it firsthand. The affair took place, of course, at the time when Henry VIII broke out from the power of Rome and set up the English church-a traumatic moment in English history. The Catholics-who were angry and threatened-fought back, sometimes in very dirty ways. They maligned anyone they felt was doing them harm. Anne Boleyn was one of the people they attacked, for reasons we don't entirely know. The stories we have about her from them are very much slanted in her disfavor; and the story about her relationship with Wyatt comes from that source.
It's said that Wyatt had an affair with Anne Boleyn when they were both younger. She must have been very beautiful and a strong personality, a remarkable woman. Apparently, it was a passionate but not very happy relationship. It probably didn't go on very long. When Henry VIII spoke of marrying her, according to the story, Wyatt said to the king that she was not fit to be queen, that her temperament was not something he would want in his queen. Clearly, she'd been sleeping around. The king took offense with Wyatt for telling him this, and banished him to the country. This was Wyatt's first banishment. Of course, there is no documentation to this story. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that Wyatt and Anne Boleyn had been lovers at one point, but more than that there is absolutely nothing to go on.
SHINDER: What else is known about Wyatt's life?
MERWIN: We know he was born in 1503 at Allington Castle on the River Midway. He was a nobleman, of course, but a minor nobleman. His wasn't a very old family-his father had been given the castle by King Henry VII in exchange for service to the family. We know that Wyatt was at court as a child and was present at the christening of Princess Mary, Elizabeth's sister, when he was twelve or thirteen. He went to St. John's College, Cambridge. We know that he married in 1520, when he was seventeen, and that it wasn't a happy marriage but it did produce two children, Thomas and Bess. The family history isn't very happy either. Thomas was executed in Wyatt's lifetime for what was considered treasonous activity. Wyatt came pretty close to execution himself because of his alleged affair with Anne Boleyn. It was a dangerous time to be involved in the court. Wyatt wasn't only involved in the court, he had a whole diplomatic career in his short life. He was captured by the Spaniards, and escaped on his own. He had a rather adventurous life.
SHINDER: What about his early life as a poet? Do we know who his friends were?
MERWIN: We don't know anything about that at all. The only person we know certainly had the same sympathies and the same interest in poetry as Wyatt was Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. Surrey was from higher in the social hierarchy; their religions were different; their social and cultural takes on things were different; but Surrey admired Wyatt very much-Surrey wrote one direct poem and several others indirectly about Wyatt after Wyatt's death, saying how highly he thought of him. Surrey was praised by the Victorians, who considered him the greater poet. To me, he certainly is not. There is one great sonnet, "A Tribute to Thomas Clere." In his poems about Wyatt his meter is much closer to Wyatt's than to what was thought of as the smooth, lovely meter of Surrey.
SHINDER: How did the public learn about their poems?
MERWIN: They were published in an anthology edited by a man called Richard Tottle: Tattle 's Miscellany. I think something like two-thirds of that miscellany is Wyatt, and a good bit of the remaining third is made up of Surrey. That's really the first edition of Wyatt.
SHINDER: Wasn't that published after Wyatt died?
MERWIN: It was published fifteen years after he died. Nothing was published in Wyatt's lifetime, but a great deal was circulated in manuscript; quite a lot of it manuscripts to be sung, lute songs. Wyatt's mastery of the lyrical forms-literally, the forms used for singing-was incomparable in its time. It's one of the great masteries of that kind of writing in all of English.
SHINDER: You mentioned Wyatt's freshness of language earlier. To the modern ear, the language is also unfamiliar and difficult to access. As someone who reads Wyatt in public, how do you approach the poems?
MERWIN: We don't really know what Wyatt's language sounded like, and I'm not an expert on late Middle English and Tudor English. I don't try to imitate what I think would be exact Tudor English. I don't try to put him into modern American either. For example, the line "Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde." I think thee in meanes was still slightly pronounced for Wyatt, so I keep it there. When I read these poems, they run through my mind like a piece of music.
Wyatt's meter baffled Victorian editors-they tinkered with it until they got it into nice iambic pentameter and made it scan right. But iambic pentameter had little to do with it. My theory is that Wyatt's meter was influenced by the lute-Wyatt was a great composer of lute songs, and I think he composed verse the way a lutanist would. His work is something in between metrical and syllabic verse.
SHINDER: So his sonnets were more songs than strict metrical constructs?
MERWIN: Yes. The genius of his sonnets isn't so much their mastery of metrical variation but their strange musical originality.