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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

§ 3. Wyatt’s sonnets

Wyatt’s chief instrument was the sonnet, a form which he was the first English writer to use. Of all forms, the sonnet is that in which it is most difficult to be obscure, turgid, or irregular. Its small size and precise structure force on the writer compression, point and intensity, for a feeble sonnet proclaims itself feeble at a glance. No better corrective could have been found for vague thought, loose expression and irregular metre; and the introduction of the sonnet stands as the head and front of Wyatt’s benefaction to English poetry. His model—in thought, and, up to a certain point, in form—was the sonnet of Petrarch, of whom he was a close student. Wyatt’s sonnets number about thirty: ten of them are translations of Petrarch, and two others show a debt to the same author. But either he did not apprehend, or he deliberately decided not to imitate, the strict Petrarchian form; and the great majority of the English sonneteers before Milton followed his example. The main difference is this: that, whereas the sextet of the strict Petrarchian sonnet never ends with a couplet, the sonnets of Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Elizabethan sonnets in general, nearly always do. The effect produced, that of a forcible ending, is opposed to the strict principles of the sonnet, which should rise to its fullest height at the conclusion of the octave, to sink to rest gradually in the sextet. But the final couplet has been used so freely and to such noble ends by English writers that objection is out of place. Wyatt was possibly induced to adopt this form partly by the existence of the favourite Chaucerian rime royal stanza of seven lines, riming ababbcc. Of Wyatt’s sonnets, two or three (e.g. Was never file; Some fowles there be; How oft have I) do actually, by their sense, fall into two divisions of seven lines; but it is plain that this was not the principle on which he constructed his sonnets. For the most part, the separation of octave and sextet is clearly marked, and the rimes of the former are arranged in Petrarchian fashion, abbaabba, with occasional variations, of which abbaacca is a not uncommon form. The effect of the sonnet-form on Wyatt’s thought and diction we shall examine presently; for the moment, we are concerned with his metrical reforms. He was a pioneer, and perfection was not to be expected of him. He has been described as a man stumbling over obstacles, continually falling but always pressing forward. Perhaps the best way of illustrating his merits and his shortcomings is to quote one of his sonnets in full; and it will be convenient for the purpose to take his version of a sonnet of Petrarch which was also translated by Surrey, in order to compare later the advance made by the younger writer.

  • The longe love, that in my thought I harber,
  • And in my hart doth kepe his residence,
  • Into my face preaseth with bold pretence,
  • And there campeth, displaying his banner.
  • She that me learns to love, and to suffer,
  • And willes that my trust, and lustes negligence
  • Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,
  • With his hardinesse, takes displeasure.
  • Wherwith love to the hartes forest he fleeth,
  • Leavyng his enterprise with paine and crye,
  • And there him hideth and not appeareth.
  • What may I do? when my maister feareth,
  • But in the field with him to live and dye,
  • For good is the life, endyng faithfully.
  • The author of this sonnet clearly has much to learn. The scanning of harber, banner, suffer, campeth, preaseth, forest as iambics is comprehensible; but, in line 6, we have to choose between a heavy stress on the unimportant word my, or an articulated final -e in lustes; while, in line 8, we can hardly escape hardìnesse, and must have either takës again, or displè-a-sùre (a possibility which receives some very doubtful support from line 8 of the sonnet, Love, Fortune, and my minde, in the almost certainly corrupt version in the first edition of Tottel’s Miscellany). In lines 11 and 12, we find the curious fact that appeareth is rimed with feareth, not on the double rime but on the last syllable only; while the last line throws a heavy emphasis on the. The author, in fact, seems to have mastered the necessity of having ten syllables in a decasyllabic line, but to be very uncertain still in questions of accent and rhythm. Some of the lines irresistibly suggest a man counting the syllables on his fingers, as, indeed, the reader is often compelled to do on a first acquaintance; on the other hand, we find a beautiful line like the tenth, which proves the author however unskilled as yet, to be a poet. The use of the caesura is feeble and often pointless, and the total impression is that of a man struggling with difficulties too great for him. But it is fair to remember two things: first, that pronunciation was then in a state of flux (in one of his satires we find Wyatt scanning honour as an iambic and as a trochee in the same line); secondly, that he made great advance in technique, and that some of the ruggedness of his work (not including this sonnet), as it appears in the first edition of Tottel’s Miscellany, is due to a faulty text, partly corrected in the second edition. Nott, who published the original MS. in 1816, discovered that Wyatt had occasionally marked the caesura with his own hand, and sometimes indicated the mode of disposing of a redundant syllable. There are sonnets (for instance, Unstable dream) which run perfectly smoothly—to say no more—showing that mastery came with practice, and that errors were not due to want of correct aim and comprehension.