In Susan Brigden's new biography of the poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt, the first truly modern voice in poetry is revealed as a canny player in the capricious and dangerous court of Henry VIII. A complex and flawed man of great genius whose poems were of unrivalled originality.
The poet Thomas Wyatt was a private man who lived in dangerous times at the court of King Henry VIII, where revealing one’s true thoughts, loyalties and feelings could lead to a swift demise: imprisonment, torture and death. Never was the wheel of fortune a more pertinent symbol. One day, as happened to Wyatt, one might be enclosed in the Tower of London awaiting execution, and the next launched on a glorious diplomatic career with the full confidence of the king – these were unstable times. Anyone wishing to make a career as a courtier to King Henry VIII quickly learned to hold their peace and refrain from being too explicit on the subjects of politics and religion, even with the closest of friends. Being privy to information was dangerous.
Wyatt’s reputation as a poet has fluctuated over the centuries. He has gone from being accused of writing conventional doggerel, to being hailed as the greatest wordsmith of his times. In the early twentieth century the latter tag stuck and his reputation has remained solid and unwavering ever since. Wyatt’s poetic talent was recognized in his own time. He made crafty use of translations and foreign poetic forms, being the first Englishman to write a sonnet in English. His highly personal poetic voice was an innovation and became a landmark in English literature. Wyatt’s poems and translations were something new. He introduced the sonnet, the epigram, the Horatian verse epistle and also experimented successfully with ottava and terza rima.
Lover, poet, diplomat, and canny businessman, Wyatt was a multi-faceted character who became a chameleon for self-protection when necessary. You might say he had an eye for the main chance too, given that he profited from the dissolution of the monasteries and abandoned his loyalties to Katherine of Aragon when the time called for it, for he was clever at divining which way the political wind was blowing.
He was a poet but, as Dr Brigden points out in great detail, he spent much of his time on diplomatic missions in Italy, Spain and France as the king’s personal ambassador, his Orator. In his own day he was appreciated for his eloquence and rhetorical skills and ability to find the “bon mot” that the occasion required. “The Heart’s Forest” is not just the biography of a poet, but of a man with a talent for survival who wrote verse of genius in his spare time. It is also a history of European politics – concentrating primarily on the disagreements between Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Francis I of France – in a time of religious upheaval triggered by Henry VIII’s quarrel with Rome. Henry was still trying his hardest to remain a European power broker, despite his being treated as a Lutheran and evangelical pariah.
Getting to the heart of Wyatt’s life and poetry is no mean feat. Superficially he was an accomplished ambassador, a polyglot and renowned for his good looks but this public persona shielded a melancholy and anguished soul that abhored the duplicity that his position at court required. In his poetry he leaves few clues as to whether or not the events he describes are real or not and is deliberately unclear (those that know will understand) – he wrote for a restricted group of friends and courtiers and perhaps for posterity. Being too overt was to draw attention to one’s true loyalties and court the hangman’s noose. Susan Bigden does an excellent job in working through the many gaps and grey areas in Wyatt’s life.
Wyatt was no anguished and lonely poet eking out a living in an attic. He was a leading light in the court of Henry VIII. As a consequence he had to find friends and sponsors to protect him, like Thomas Cromwell, at least until his execution. Religion was also a dangerous issue. The king’s divorce and the break with Rome isolated England from the predominantly Catholic mainland. Obliged to adopt new allegiances for survival, it is no surprise that Wyatt’s poetry is filled with the anguish of a man determined to maintain honesty and constancy in the face of the swings of fortune.
Scholars have tried desperately to identify historical events within the very personal poems – such as his supposed relationship with Ann Boleyn – but Wyatt never opened the door to his soul more than just a fraction. One of his more famous poems: “They flee from me that sometime did me seek/ with naked foot stalking in my chamber”, is a perfect example of his impenetrable style that defies an exact critical appreciation. It is completely unclear who “they” are – perhaps women or friends who have betrayed him.
A biography of Wyatt about whom we know so little will by nature be a frustrating beast. There are many mysteries left unresolved: why did Wyatt leave his wife? Did he have a relationship with Elizabeth Darrell? What exactly was his connection with Thomas Cromwell and the Earl of Surrey, a fellow poet? Wyatt is fleshed out in Susan Brigden’s engaging and informative book not as a poet but as a diplomat, involved rather surprisingly in kidnapping and assassination, and a potential victim of the Inquisition. It is easy to forget this same man is one of the most sensitive and clever wordsmiths that have ever lived. Lovers of pure poetry may be disappointed at the lack of insight into his creative impulse and talent, with little reference made to the joy of reading his poetry, but the key point here is that you would be hard pressed to understand the Wyatt’s verse without being aware of the historical context.
This is not a hagiography of a poet. Wyatt was a complex character, a true Renaissance man, who had a genius for writing innovative verse but who was also a man with his flaws. But as Susan Brigden emphasizes, these flaws can only be truly understood in the light of the very real dangers faced by those living in the capricious and treacherous court of Henry VIII.