POETRY IN LOCKDOWN: 22
The stock of poet Sir Thomas Wyatt has risen greatly since he popped up in Wolf Hall and its sequels, Hilary Mantel’s wildly successful novels about Thomas Cromwell. Wyatt was a courtier-diplomat, a protegé of Cromwell, but also close to the Boleyn family. For some time he was, or professed to be, the lover of Anne Boleyn.
Many of his poems are assumed to be about Anne, including today’s subtly erotic elegy about falling out of favour with the person you love, and the friends you lose in the process. Wyatt’s verse follows conventions — themes & verse forms — laid out by Italian writers, especially Petrarch. But it is also highly specific to his own situation. Since this is Henry VIII’s court, he has to use extreme caution so that, like Soviet writers under Stalin, his meaning can be oblique and the language cryptic. It is worth thinking carefully, for instance, about what Wyatt’s lover means when she asks him “how like you this?” Note also that in Tudor England “to range” was to switch allegiance, while “deserved” (last line) meant to do a particular thing that gets you a reward or favour. In the previous line “kindly” is surely ironic.
Holbein’s portrait drawing gives a brilliant sense of how alert and watchful a man needed to be around Henry VIII.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Basely seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, How like you this?
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned through my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use new-fangleness
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.