Sir Thomas Wyatt

The English poet and diplomat Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) is chiefly remembered for his 200 songs, many of them intended for lute accompaniment. He also introduced the sonnet and terza rima into English poetry.

Thomas Wyatt was born at Allington Castle near Maidstone, Kent. He was the elder son of Henry Wyatt, afterward knighted, and his wife Anne. In 1515 Thomas entered St. John's College, Cambridge, receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1518 and his master of arts degree in 1522. His early marriage to Elizabeth Brooke, daughter of Thomas, Lord Cobham, in 1520, proved unhappy. After she had borne him two children, Thomas (ca. 1521-1554) and Bess, Wyatt separated from his wife, apparently because she was unfaithful to him, and they were not reconciled until 1541.

After his early introduction at court, Wyatt quickly secured advancement. Popular and handsome, he was much admired for his skill in music, languages, and arms. As early as 1516 Wyatt became server extraordinary to the king, and in 1524 he became keeper of the king's jewels. Wyatt's father had been associated with Sir Thomas Boleyn, and Wyatt seems to have been early acquainted with Anne Boleyn. He was generally regarded as her lover. He was the fulfillment of the Renaissance ideal—soldier, statesman, courtier, lover, scholar, and poet.

In 1525 Wyatt participated in the Christmas tournament at Greenwich before King Henry VIII, and his diplomatic career began in 1526-1527. In these years he was sent on diplomatic missions to France and to the papacy. These missions were important from the literary standpoint because on them he became acquainted with the work of French and Italian poets. From 1528 to 1530 Wyatt served as high marshal at Calais, and from 1530 to 1536 Henry VIII regularly employed him on diplomatic missions. In 1533 Wyatt deputized for his father as chief fewer at the coronation of Anne Boleyn. At the time of Anne's trial and execution for adultery in 1536, Wyatt was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. Released from prison after a month, Wyatt returned to full royal favor. Knighted in 1537, Wyatt was sent on embassy to Emperor Charles V in Spain that same year. In May 1539 Wyatt returned to London, and afterward he was sent on missions to France and Flanders. Henry VIII later employed him as overseer of the defense of Calais and as vice admiral of a projected fleet.

In 1542 Wyatt was elected a member of Parliament from Kent, and in October he was sent to meet Charles V's ambassadors upon their arrival at Falmouth. Contracting a fever, Wyatt died at Sherborne, Dorset, on Oct. 11, 1542. Of the numerous commemorative elegies, the one by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, remains the most famous: "Wyatt resteth here, that quick could never rest."


His Works

Wyatt's work divides into two groups: the sonnets, rondeaus, songs, and lyric poems treating love; and the satires and the penitential psalms. Ninety-six songs were first published in 1557 in Songes and Sonettes (Tottel's Miscellany). They have been supplemented by other songs in manuscripts. Wyatt pioneered the sonnet in English verse, writing 31 sonnets, of which 10 were translations from Petrarch. The sonnets do not exhibit Wyatt's poetic gifts at their best because the Petrarchan conventions strained his frank and robust nature. Wyatt's best work is probably contained in his 200 songs, although their main theme—his ill-treatment at the hands of his mistress—becomes monotonous. Wyatt's best songs and poems include "What No, Perdie," "Tagus, Farewell," "Lux, My Fair Falcon," "Forget Not Yet," "Blame Not My Lute," "My Lute, Awake," "In Eternum," "They Flee from Me," and "Once in Your Grace."

Wyatt also wrote three satires, adopting terza rima from Italian poetry. They are "On the Mean and Sure Estate," "Of the Courtier's Life," and "How to Use the Court and Himself." His seven penitential psalms, also written in terza rima, are freely paraphrased and contain much original material. Each one is preceded by a prologue. They were established in 1549 as Certayne Psalmes … drawen into English meter by Sir Thomas Wyat Knyght by Thomas Raynald and John Harrington.


Further Reading on Sir Thomas Wyatt

The standard edition of Wyatt's poetry is Collected poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, edited by Kenneth Muir (1949; rev. ed. 1969). It replaced the two-volume set edited by A. K. Foxwell in 1913 and reprinted in 1964. The standard biography is Muir's The Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1963). Critical studies include A. K. Foxwell, A Study of Sir Thomas Wyatt's Poems (1911; repr. 1964); Edmund K. Chambers, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Some Collected Studies (1933); Catherine M. Ing, Elizabethan Lyrics: A Study in the Development of English Metres and Their Relation to Poetic Effect (1951); Raymond Southall, The Courtly Maker: An Essay in the Poetry of Wyatt and His Contemporaries (1964); and Patricia Thomson, Sir Thomas Wyatt and His Background (1965).