You might think of sonnets as ‘Shakespearean,’ but if it weren’t for folks like Thomas Wyatt, Shakespeare might never have written one. Find out more about the life and influential work of a real literary ambassador in this lesson on Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Sir Thomas Wyatt: Early Life
Some of us who’ve heard of England’s King Henry VIII might be surprised to learn that anyone in his court ever escaped execution. Nevertheless, the diplomatic Sir Thomas Wyatt got past the chopping block; though, not without a few close calls of his own along the way.
Born on an unknown date in 1503 at Allington Castle in Kent, Thomas Wyatt was poised from an early age for life in the royal court. He was educated at St. John’s College in the University of Cambridge and married to Elizabeth Brooke in 1520 – all by the age of 17! His father, Henry Wyatt, was already a trusted member of Henry VIII’s court, and Thomas’ winning combination of charm, intelligence, and good looks made him extremely popular there, as well.
By 1525, Wyatt had already held a couple minor positions at court and obtained a separation from Elizabeth on grounds of adultery. However, it seems he may have had his eyes on someone else, too, since he appears to have taken an interest in Anne Boleyn at about the same time. But that relationship would have to wait, considering he was now engaged in diplomatic missions for the King Henry VIII in France and Italy. During these and other such trips to the continent from 1526-1527, Wyatt encountered many poetic forms and styles that would later influence his own poetry.
When Wyatt returned home, he was granted honorary positions and continued to enjoy favor with both the Henry and his now affianced Anne Boleyn; he even served at her coronation in 1533. Two years later, he achieved knighthood and became Sir Thomas Wyatt; soon after, he started having trouble at court.
Trouble at Court
In 1536, Thomas was imprisoned for the first time as a result of a dispute with the Duke of Suffolk; however, there were also whispers that he was having a love affair with Anne. That year proved to be a tragic one, indeed; Thomas witnessed Anne’s execution and learned of his father’s death. Later that year, Wyatt was released from prison and soon found his way back into Henry’s favor.
Thomas continued his diplomatic career in Europe; but once again, he found himself in the line of fire. This time around, he was charged with treason. Eventually, he received a pardon, partially due to the fact that Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, was also the cousin of one of Wyatt’s close friends, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. After escaping the dreaded Tower of London and receiving even more honors at court, Wyatt took ill after his release and died on October 11, 1542. Even though he died quite young and none of his major work was published during his lifetime, Sir Thomas Wyatt left a lasting impression on English poetry through his experiences as a foreign and literary ambassador.
Throughout his diplomatic travels, especially in France and Italy, Wyatt was widely influenced by the various poetic styles and forms native to those regions. One in particular really caught his imagination, and Thomas was quick to capitalize on the Italian poetic format that soon took England by storm.
Along with Henry Howard, Sir Thomas Wyatt is credited for introducing the Italian sonnet to the English language. Both imported the Italian or ‘Petrarchan sonnet’, which contains 14 lines of iambic pentameter broken into two groups of eight (octet) and six (sestet) according to rhyme schemes. However, whereas Howard modified this form to create the English or ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet we’re more familiar with today, Wyatt left the Italian form intact, adapting it only to fit English syllable-stress patterns.
Sir Thomas may not have revolutionized this already antique poetic form, but he did produce some of the first sonnets ever written in English. All of these, along with those of Howard, were collected in Tottel’s Miscellany in 1557. You can take a look at a couple of them here if you just keep reading!
- ‘Whoso List to Hunt’: This poem is a classic example of an Italian sonnet, only it’s written in English. But that’s not why ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ has become one of Wyatt’s most famous works. Judging from its style and content, many have claimed over the years that this sonnet was written for Anne Boleyn herself, which might’ve contributed to the impression that Wyatt was her lover.
- ‘Description of the contrarious Passions in a Lover’: Like ‘Whoso List to Hunt,’ this sonnet by Wyatt follows not only the format of the Italian sonnet, but also its themes. One theme in particular was prevalent in the Italian form: that love can often make us feel conflicting emotions, including love for another accompanied by self-loathing.
Including his sonnets and lyric poetry, Sir Thomas wrote over 90 individual poems, all of which can be found in Tottel’s Miscellany, such as the two below.
- ‘Blame not my Lute’: Another of Wyatt’s widely famous works, this poem repeatedly asks that the poet’s love ‘Blame not (his) lute’ for the poor quality of his work, a common practice among poets. However, he also says that she shouldn’t blame his lute for her blatant infidelity.
- ‘Of the Courtier’s Life’: This is one of only three satires, or works dedicated to social or literary criticism through the use of comedic elements, written by Wyatt. It’s composed as a letter to his friend, John Poins, in which Thomas critiques and pokes fun at the various European courts he’s visited.
Though suspected of an affair with Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas Wyatt was a skilled diplomat and poet in the court of King Henry VIII. His works like ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ and ‘Description of the contrarious Passions in a Lover’ introduced the English to the Italian sonnet, which contains 14 lines of iambic pentameter broken into two groups of eight and six, according to rhyme schemes. He also produced many other poems, including ‘Blame not my Lute,’ as well as three satires, or works dedicated to social or literary criticism through the use of comedic elements.