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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

§ 5. Wyatt’s epigrams, satires and devotional pieces

The same sentiment appears even more clearly in Wyatt’s lyrics not in sonnet form and especially in those composed of short lines. A delightful song in three quatrains of octosyllabic lines, Madame, withouten many wordes, is as brave and cavalier a way of demanding a “yes” or “no” as Suckling himself could have uttered; and What should I say! Since Faith is dead, a little song of tetrasyllabic lines with a refrain, is a resolute if graceful farewell. It is in these lighter lyrics that some of Wyatt’s finest work is to be found. Forget not yet the tried intent is known to all readers of poetry. It is marked, with other poems, by two things: the use of the refrain and the unmistakable impression it conveys of having been written to be sung. The refrain is a valuable means of knitting a poem together, helping Wyatt almost as much as the practice of the short poem—in a metre imitated, as a rule, from Italian or French—towards being clear, exact and musical. Of the influence of music on the writing of poetry more will be said elsewhere. It would be rash to state that in the reign of Henry VIII music so far followed the rhythm of poetry as to exert a good influence on its form. Still, a lyric was, in those days, written, as a matter of course, to be sung, and when poems sing themselves it may be safe to give to music a share in the good work. We do not find in Wyatt the elaborate metrical harmonies that grew up in Elizabeth’s days. His stanzas are always short, and simple in construction, without much involution of rime, and they have a sweetness, a dignity and a sincerity that make them strongly attractive. But their place in the history of English poetry is more important than their intrinsic qualities. Here, for the first time, we find deliberately studied and worked upon by the poetic imagination that cry of the heart, which, beginning with the recognised pains of the chivalric lover, became the subject, in a thousand moods and forms, of what may not unfairly be considered the finest achievement of English poetry.

Besides sonnets and other lyrics, Wyatt’s work falls under three heads: epigrams, satires and devotional pieces. Epigram means, with Wyatt, not a stinging stave of wit, but a single conceit or paradox vividly expressed—for instance: The lover compareth his hart to the over-charged gonne (which may be specially noticed because a later use of the same idea will help to show the deterioration of the school of Wyatt); Comparison of love to a streame falling from the Alpes; How by a kisse he found both his life and death; and so forth. The epigrams, indeed, differ little in matter from the more metaphysical of the sonnets; though, here and there, we find the form used for the strong expression of personal feeling, as in Wiat, being in prison, to Brian (written, probably, during his incarceration in 1540, to his friend Sir Francis Bryan, also a poet), and in The Lover professeth himself constant. For the matter of a few of the epigrams, and for the construction of all, Wyatt’s model is the Strambotti of Serafino; the form throughout is a decasyllabic octave riming abababcc, and, for his ideas, the writer generally sought far and wide through such foreign and classical learning as he possessed. Seneca, Josephus and Ausonius (possibly following Plato) are among the authors on whom he draws. Of greater interest, both intrinsic and technical, are his satires, which were written in his retirement at Allington towards the close of his active and chequered life. They are three in number. The first, Of the meane and sure estate written to John Poins, tells the fable of the town and country mouse, which he adapts from Horace (Sat. II, vi), being, possibly, acquainted also with Henryson’s poem The Uponlandis Mous and the Burges Mous, though that poem was not yet printed; while the conclusion is enlarged from Persius, Sat. III. The second, Of the courtiers life written to John Poins, is an adaptation of a satire of Luigi Alamanni, and explains that the author, scorning the obsequiousness and deceit demanded of courtiers, finds it better to live in retirement; the third, How to use the court and him selfe therin, written to syr Fraunces Bryan, takes its general ideas from Horace’s advice to Tiresias (Sat. II, v), and preaches ironically the doctrine, “Put money in thy purse.” The adaptations are free, and ideas are drawn from more than one author. There are several references for instance, to Chaucer, and the references are, in general, modernised. Adaptations though they be, these satires have every mark of sincerity. The evils of court life and the blessings of honest retirement are a common theme with the authors collected in Tottel’s Miscellany; no other contributor writes with such convincing fervour, such manly rectitude, as Wyatt. His personality and his strong feeling are more patent in the satires than in any other of his poems; and their very ruggedness of form seems—as in the later case of Donne or Marston—to be adopted for the better expression of honest indignation. Fifty years afterwards, Hall, the author of the Virgidemiarum, believed himself to be the first English satirist, and from the fact that Wyatt’s satires were not previously imitated it is clear that he was in advance of his time. The metre adopted by Wyatt is that of Alamanni, the terza rima, decasyllabic lines with “linked” rimes ababcbcdcded, etc. This, too, is the scheme of rime he uses in his versions of the seven penitential psalms, which were probably composed during the same period of his life as the satires. Each psalm is introduced by a fanciful narrative, modelled on Beza’s Praefatio Poetica, of the moods in which David wrote it. The versions themselves are very free; the psalms, in fact, are used rather as pretexts for the expression of the poet’s own feelings than as originals for rendering anew. He is appalled by the sense of his sinfulness, fretted “to the bones” with remorse, and full of apprehensions of the Judgment. Wyatt also translated other psalms. Warton’s statement that he translated the whole Psalter is, apparently, erroneous; and the only other surviving version is that of Psalm 37.

Enough has been said to show that Wyatt was, for his time, a well-read man in French, Italian and classical literature. He knew something, too, of Chaucer, as the frequent references to, or quotations from, his works show; but his almost exclusive use of French and Italian models indicates that he did not study Chaucer for his versification. His poetry conveys the charm of a brave and strong spirit; his technical faults are those of a pioneer; but his great claim to recognition, like that of his contemporary and follower, Surrey, lies in his successful effort to raise his native tongue to dignity by making it the vehicle of “polite” and courtly poetry, an effort which his model, Petrarch, had himself made in his time. For this purpose, both Wyatt and Surrey use, according to the prescription of Castiglione, the ordinary diction of their day, free from affectation of archaism and from vulgarity, and it is rare for the modern reader to encounter unfamiliar words in their poetry.