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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

VIII. The New English Poetry

§ 2. Sir Thomas Wyatt

This volume tends to prove that the movement had one pioneer and two leaders. The pioneer was Sir Thomas Wyatt, who was joined in the leadership by Henry Howard, known as earl of Surrey. A sketch of their lives, especially of that of the former, may be of interest as helping to show the extent to which England was brought into touch with European influences.

Thomas Wyatt was born in or about 1503, and was educated at Cambridge, possibly, also, at Oxford. In 1511, his father was joint constable with Sir Thomas Boleyn of Norwich Castle, and, as a boy, he made the acquaintance of a lady—Sir Thomas’s daughter Anne—with whose name report was to link his own very closely. In 1525, after holding certain offices about the person of the king, Thomas Wyatt accompanied Sir Thomas Cheney on a diplomatic mission to France. In 1526–7, he was sent with Sir John Russell, the English ambassador, to the papal court; and visited Venice, Ferrara, Bologna and Florence. On his return, he was captured by the imperial forces under the constable of Bourbon, but escaped. In 1529–30, he was high marshal at Calais. In 1537, he went as ambassador to the emperor, and remained abroad, mainly in Spain, till 1539; in the April of that year he was recalled, in consequence of the intrigues of his fellow-ambassador, Bonner. At the end of the same year he was despatched to Flanders to see the emperor and followed him to Paris, returning in 1540. On the fall of Cromwell, who had supported Wyatt, Bonner succeeded in obtaining Wyatt’s imprisonment in the Tower; whence, having either denied the accusation or pleaded for mercy, he was afterwards released. He retired to his house at Allington, in Kent, and employed his leisure in writing his satires and his paraphrase of the penitential psalms. In 1542, we find him knight of the shire for Kent; and, in the summer of that year, hastening in ill health on a mission to conduct the imperial ambassador to London, he caught a fever, and died on the road, at Sherborne, on 11 October. One other episode of his life remains to be mentioned. He was commonly regarded as, in youth, the lover of Anne Boleyn; and it was reported that, when the king wished to make that lady his wife, Wyatt informed him of his previous relations with her. Whatever the truth of an obscure matter, Wyatt was chief ewer at the coronation of Henry’s second queen in 1533; and, though we find him committed to the Tower in May, 1536, the period of her downfall, it was probably only as a witness. One of his sonnets, Whoso list to hunt, has clear reference to Anne Boleyn, ending, as it does, with the line: “Noli me tangere; for Caesar’s I am”; for, though it is imitated from Romanello or Petrarch (157, Una candida cerva), it may yet be of personal application. There is also an epigram Of His Love called Anna, and another reference to Anne has been found by some in the sonnet Though I myself be bridled of my mind. His confinement in May, 1536, was, undoubtedly, one of the facts in his life which induced him to regard May as his unlucky month.

It will be seen that Wyatt frequently travelled abroad, and that he spent a period of some months in Italy. And it was from Italy that he drew the ideas and the form by means of which English poetry was rejuvenated. The changes which English versification passed through in the period between Chaucer and the Elizabethans are described elsewhere. Neither the principles of rhythm and accent, it would seem, not even the grammar of Chaucer were fully understood by his followers, Lydgate, Occleve and Hawes. In place of Chaucer’s care in arranging the stress and pause of his line, here is chaotic carelessness; and the diction is redundant, feeble and awkward. Meanwhile, the articulate final -e, of which Chaucer made cunning use, had been dropping out of common speech, and the accent on the final syllable of words derived from the French, such as favour, virtue, travail, had begun to move back to the first syllable, with the result of producing still further prosodical confusion and irregularity. It was the mission of Wyatt and his junior contemporary. Surrey, to substitute order for confusion, especially by means of the Italian influence which they brought to bear on English poetry, an influence afterwards united by Spenser (Gabriel Harvey assisting) with the classical influence.