There are six key areas of influence that Thomas Wyatt could be said to be subject to. The respective weight and influence of each group can be argued, but each group was most assuredly a part of formulating the attitude, outlook and style of Thomas Wyatt's work.
Thomas Wyatt’s father, Henry Wyatt, was a significant influence on his son in terms of his career and accession to the royal court. Henry Wyatt was an official guardian of Henry VIII, having been highly regarded by his father, Henry VII. Henry Wyatt followed his own father into royal service. The life of a courtier was a dangerous one, as political allegiances were forged and broken with alarming rapidity. Henry Wyatt was imprisoned and tortured in the Tower of London for refusing to support the rule of Richard III. Upon his release, he was established in to the court of Henry VII. Similarly, Thomas Wyatt endured three periods of imprisonment during his time as a courtier to Henry VIII. Both Wyatts were fortunate to escape execution, as many others were put to death. It is likely that both men were able to use their wit, diplomacy and skills of negotiation to save their necks.
Thomas Wyatt was an intelligent, sensitive and educated man. He studied at St John’s College, Cambridge and was well versed in the classics and philosophical teachings of the great thinkers. One of Wyatt’s early attempts at translation involved the works of Plutarch, a Greek scholar who was an ambassador as well as an historian. In his chronicles of the lives of the great Greek and Roman rulers, Plutarch utilized engaging detail to communicate the character of his subject as well as their deeds.
Wyatt also studied and appreciated the works of Plato. He refers to Plato’s work in his poem ‘Farewell Love’ as a source of solace and contemplation, and a better source of edification than a fickle lady. Seneca is also referred to in the same poem. Seneca was a Roman historian and a Stoic philosopher. Wyatt was an advocate of this philosophy, which suggests that a natural order dictates all action. Evidence of Wyatt’s adherence to Stoic principles can be seen in works such as ‘Divers Doth Use’ and ‘My Heart I Gave Thee’.
Wyatt’s patron was Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was an effective and practical statesman who carried out the practical application of Henry VIII’s various political stratagems. It was Cromwell who orchestrated the seizure and sale of monastic land at Henry’s behest, raising the funds that was sorely needed to support Henry’s lavish spending. As Lord Chamberlain and a favorite of the King, Cromwell was constantly in danger from those who sought to reduce his influence and extend their own. Despite the years of reward and respect afforded to Cromwell by his king, he was eventually imprisoned and executed for heresy. Wyatt followed his mentor’s path in becoming both in and out of favor with a difficult and irresolute king. Wyatt is believed to have mourned his adviser in the translation of another Petrarchan sonnet, ‘The Pillar Perish’d’.
Although it is likely that there were several women in Wyatt’s life, there are three who could be said to have had the most influence on his character and his work. Wyatt’s wife, Elizabeth Brooke, caused him much pain. Their marriage was brief, and their separation was attributed to her infidelity. The translations of Petrarch’s sonnets, which mark the early part of Wyatt’s work, often have a bitter and frustrated lover as the narrator. The other woman who could have been the focus of his resentment and regret was Anne Boleyn, another early love who was tempted away from him by none other than King Henry VIII, Wyatt’s monarch and friend. The sonnet ‘Whoso List To Hunt?’ is believed to be based on Wyatt’s relinquishing of the pursuit of Anne as she becomes Henry’s property. The ‘hind’ in the poem has a collar signifying her as belonging to ‘Caesar’.
The courtly conventions of the time made much use of the forsaken lover and the heartless woman, but Wyatt’s work contains references which extend beyond these stereotypes. Wyatt also illustrates the powerful woman, in works such as ‘The Lively Sparks’. Wyatt’s partner and companion to his death was Elizabeth Darrell, who was a more constant and loyal companion.
In 1515, Wyatt began his service for Henry VIII, becoming a part of one of the youngest and most energetic courts in English history. Many of the courtiers, as was the King himself, were scarecely more than teenagers. They were, however, a collection of bright young things. Wit and chivalry were the order of the day. Because it was assumed his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, would inherit the throne, Henry VIII had been educated as a second son, schooled for a life in the church; Arthur died shortly after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, paving Henry's way to the crown following the death of their father. As a monarch he was an accomplished musician, poet, athlete and wit. He was tall, athletic and handsome. Wyatt followed in his footsteps, similarly being celebrated as a writer, tournament hero and a performer. He shared his king’s zest for life, and the king admired Wyatt’s diplomacy, intelligence and taste in women. Whilst in Henry’s employ, Wyatt quickly learned the necessity of tact, self preservation and ready wit. His life depended on it.
In his ambassadorial role, Wyatt was fully conversant with the rivalry which existed between Henry VIII and two of other European monarchs, Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain. As well as liaising between the nations in a bid to exercise Henry’s power, Wyatt became immersed in the culture as well as the politics of these nations.
It has often been said that there was no significant literature produced in England between the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) and the time of William Shakespeare (b. 1564). However, Wyatt’s output is one example of work of significant value to originate in the time between the two literary giants. Naturally, Wyatt was influenced by the work of Chaucer. Chaucer, like Wyatt, was well travelled, had been a diplomat and imbibed himself in the cultural surroundings that his travels opened to him. Wyatt certainly admired Chaucer’s work, but sought to further develop English Literature as a respected and elevated form.
Wyatt chose to translate works by Francesco Petrarch, an esteemed Italian poet from the 14th century. Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch were not merely linguistic exercises: he utilized a recognized form and style whilst developing the ideas, conceits and structure of his poems into a uniquely English shape. Petrarch’s translations served to divert questions on the sometimes highly significant and controversial themes of the poems; courtly betrayal and political intrigue was best delivered in the guise of historical form.
It would be impossible to establish to what degree each of the above groups shaped Wyatt’s vision and his work. However, establishing a social, political and cultural context for his writing gives us a clearer understanding of Wyatt’s purpose and success.