The narrator describes his boat challenged with lack of memory, which passes through dangerous seas on winter nights. He is stuck between rocks and his enemy, and sadly, his lord misdirects him cruelly. The oars are plans to escape, as if his destruction would scarcely matter. A constant wind tears at the sail, which is made of forced sighs and honest fear.
Rain formed from tears and clouds of despair have loosened the rigging, covering the ropes with mistakes and ignorance. The stars that guided him towards this agony are gone, and reason, who should be his companion, is drowned. Meanwhile the narrator is still hopelessly yearning for safety.
The sonnet is a translation of Petrarch’s sonnet 189. The poem is constructed around an extended metaphor of a dangerous voyage which represents a spurned love or loss of faith in an important union or relationship. The metaphor has been interpreted to suggest that the narrator feels deserted by God:
‘and eke mine enemy, alas,/That is my lord, steereth with cruelness.’
However, the fact that the poem is a translation of an idea that originated with Petrarch is not a reason to dismiss the ideas as other than Wyatt’s own. Recognized chiefly for bringing the Petrarchan sonnet form to English Literature, Wyatt nonetheless selected the poems, which he then translated with his own style, tone and emphasis. The extended metaphor of the tempestuous voyage as representative of a turbulent relationship is a clever choice for a courtier who spent much time traveling overseas as part of his ministerial duties on behalf of the King. The idea of the religious despair in the line quoted above becomes less clear when we realize that Wyatt did not regularly use capital letters to denote personification, and therefore we cannot be sure whether his ‘lord’ is referring to God, or another ruler of the narrator’s destiny. If the narrator speaks as Wyatt, then his ‘lord’ would be his king, Henry VIII.
Wyatt did have crises of confidence in the bond between himself and his king. The complexity of the triangle of Wyatt, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII would in itself provide a possible scenario for the jeopardy and despair of the tumultuous expedition. However, the metaphor could also symbolize Wyatt’s many dangerous voyages across Europe as a diplomat and ambassador for the Tudor court. There may also be a more personal interpretation in the danger which Wyatt felt as part of th Tudor court during Henry’s reign. He was imprisoned twice, held captive and witnessed the execution of his former mistress and Henry VIII’s wife, Anne Boleyn. The Tudor court was a dangerous place, as challenging to navigate and survive as the unforgiving oceans.
The oars in line 5 represent his emergency measures. As these are ‘a thought in readiness’ the suggestion is that the narrator will rely on his wit to try to escape the impending danger. There is a deep irony here as the various levels of the poem suggest that its topic of the instability of court life would require a great wit to negotiate it safely, and a great wit to compose a poem about such a dangerous and sensitive subject. Indeed the lives of courtiers were treated lightly, and Wyatt did well to live as long as he did.
The depth of the narrator’s grief is highlighted by the storm created by ‘forced sighs’. This metaphor suggests the atmosphere of court is what challenges the direction of the Tudor rule. Continuing this idea, the rain of tears and clouds of distain create a potentially disastrous storm, just as the changing allegiances and directions of Henry VIII in his political and social actions variously jeopardized his monarchy. It is the discontent, fear and anguish which is loosing the rigging, implying that the metaphorical galley is weakening as the monarch loses his grip.
The last four lines indicate that due to ignorance and mistakes, the ‘stars’ have become obscured; the guiding light is lost. Wyatt and King Henry VIII’s relationship was strained at points where Henry’s passions overtook his political sense and direction. Similarly, they had been close, and Wyatt had been instrumental in advocating for his monarch I Europe, however, when ‘reason’ was no longer his friend, the narrator was cast adrift.