Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 4. Wyatt’s treatment of love

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

VIII. The New English Poetry

§ 4. Wyatt’s treatment of love

This, then—the introduction of the sonnet with its chastening and strengthening influence on metre and diction—is Wyatt’s great service to English poetry; but his service did not end there. His close study of Petrarch and other Italian authors resulted in an innovation quite as important, the introduction of the personal note. The conventionality of character, sentiment and machinery inherited from the Roman de la Rose disappeared; and, in its place, came poetry professedly and intentionally personal, and, within limits, actually introspective. Following Petrarch, Wyatt sang, in his love-poetry, almost exclusively of his own sufferings at the cruelty, much more rarely of his own joy in the kindness, of his mistress. To say that many of the sonnets are translations and, therefore, cannot represent the actual feelings of the translator, is to question the sincerity of almost every Elizabethan sonneteer. The pleasures and pains of love are the same in all ages; it is the convention of expression which changes. The new convention, of which the existence must be recognised in Wyatt, is a convention of personal emotion, in which the poet at least pretends to be singing of his own heart. And in Wyatt we meet with constant proof that he is so singing. In imitating Petrarch, he frequently adopted to the full the Petrarchian scheme for the content of a sonnet—the selection of an image which is then elaborated with as many cognate and subsidiary metaphors as may be. Take, for instance, Wyatt’s sonnet My galley charged with forgetfulnesse, which is copied from Petrarch’s Passa la nave mia colma d’obblio. His heart is a ship, steered cruelly through a winter sea by his foe, who is his lord; the oars are thoughts; the winds are sighs and fearfulness; the rain is tears; the clouds are disdain; the cords are twisted with error and ignorance; while reason, that should be his consort (or comfort), is drowned. If there were nothing of superior matter to this in Wyatt, his achievement would almost be limited to his metrical reforms; but the genuineness and originality of the poet are shown in other sonnets in which he either alters his original, modifying some more than usually strained conceit into something in better taste, or writes with no original but his own heart. See the close of his sonnet, Lyke unto these unmesurable mountaines, imitated from Melin de St. Gelays, or lines 5–8 in his sonnet, Yet was I never of your love agreved, in which he flatly contradicts the sentiment of Petrarch. And, more than once, he flies in the face of the slavery to the mistress prescribed in the code of chivalric love from which he drew much of his inspiration; declaring roundly (e.g. in the sonnet, My love to skorn) that,

  • As there is a certayn time to rage:
  • So is there time such madnes to aswage;
  • and bids his cruel mistress a manly farewell. It is not fanciful, perhaps, to find such a sentiment characteristically English. The chivalric ideal, codified in Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, was, as we shall see further in discussing Surrey, of great weight in this, the last century of chivalry in England; but there is, perhaps, something in our temperament that forbade its complete acceptance in the matter of the servitude of love.