Two Poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Story


Another character who appears in Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) who was a diplomat and member of the Court of Henry VIII, as well as being a fine poet. I thought I would post two of his famous poems.

The first is a sonnet, written some time in the 1530s, is ostensibly a (loose) translation of Petrarch’s Una Candida Cerva and thus one of the first examples of a Petrarchan Sonnet written in English. That makes it interesting in its own right, but many people think that it is actually about Anne Boleyn. The use of hunting as a metaphor for courtly love was widespread and, despite being married, Wyatt seems to have had his eye on Anne Boleyn. As far as is known, however, they didn’t have a sexual relationship. Wyatt wisely backed off when he realized he was competing with Henry VIII (thinly disguised as “Caesar”) in the penultimate line; Noli me tangere means “do not touch me” in Latin.

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

Wyatt was in fact confined to the Tower of London in 1536 on suspicion of having committed adultery with Anne Boleyn; adultery with the King’s wife was considered treason, a capital offence. While in the Tower, where he witnessed executions, possibly including that of Anne Boleyn herself and others accused of treason with her, he wrote this other famous poem

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

The repeated Latin phrase circa Regna tonat is usually translated “Thunder rolls around the Throne”, a reference to the dangerous temperament of the King.

Wyatt was not executed in 1536, but released after the intervention of none other than Thomas Cromwell. It seems he had a habit of sailing rather close to the wind, and was in and out of trouble with the King, being charged again with treason in 1541 and again released. He died, apparently of natural causes, in 1541, at the age of 39.

Leave a Comment