Sir Thomas Wyatt: Poems

Sir Thomas Wyatt: Poems Study Guide

History of the Collection

There have been several collections of poetry since the sixteenth century that have included works attributed to Sir Thomas Wyatt. There remains confusion, however, as to the exact number of poems written by Wyatt; there are several reasons for this uncertainty. As many of Wyatt’s works were translations of the Italian poet Petrarch and others, some anthologists have chosen not to attribute these versions to Wyatt. Wyatt’s canon is believed to be somewhere between 100 and 250 poems, not including his satires and psalms. A further complication to clearly establishing the breadth of Wyatt’s work is the fact that he was not alone in translating some poems, and it becomes a challenge to attribute correctly which version belongs to which poet. For instance, the Wyatt poem ’The Long Love That In My Thought Doth Harbour’ is a translation of Petrarch’s Rime 140. Wyatt’s contemporary (sometimes described as equal, or even superior) Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, also penned a translation of the Petrarch poem, which he called ‘Love That Doth Reign and Live Within My Thought’. Various critics have argued the respective literary merits and demerits of the three works. It is wrong to dismiss Wyatt’s achievements in transforming Petrarch’s initial works as mere translation. Wyatt uses the tradition and respect held by Petrarch’s work to scaffold the new form of English poetry, and to catalogue the political and social tensions of his time.

Apart from the issue of originality, Wyatt’s work is difficult to attribute as he used various forms within poetry, prose and verse. His canon includes sonnets, epigrams, rondeaux, psalms, letters, songs, ballades, canzoni and satires. Writing in a range of styles, which explore the forms of literature across the ages and nations, understandably makes the provenance sometimes difficult to establish.

Another test to establishing clear authorship of Wyatt’s work is the fact that poems and songs were rarely signed, as they were created to entertain the court and on some occasions anonymity would be appropriate. The court of Henry VIII was a turbulent one, both politically and socially. The affiliations within court were mercurial at best, and some courtiers literally lost their heads for voicing opinions that did not suit the King or his most influential officers. Wyatt managed to survive his periods of disfavor: it is likely that some of his bitterest words were therefore anonymous at the time.

As Wyatt’s poems were published only posthumously, checking their validity with the author was not possible, and a desire to clarify the poet’s intent often led well-meaning anthologists to their own interpretations. There was very little punctuation within his poems: Wyatt used only the full stop and the virgule (a slash which approximates to pause slightly longer than a comma). Furthermore, he did not use capitalization to depict personification. Therefore, his work has been subtly flexed between various editors attempts to direct the reader to the ‘correct’ interpretation of Wyatt’s message.

Wyatt’s work was first anthologized in 1557's Tottel’s Miscellany, the first printed anthology of English poetry. The editors of publisher Richard Tottel chose to manipulate the rhyme and punctuation of Wyatt’s work. The full title of text, Songes and Sonettes Written By the Ryght Honorable Lord Henry Howard, Late Earle of Surrey, and Other shows that Wyatt’s work was not regarded as highly as Howard’s at this time. The result of the editing of Wyatt’s work may have brought his work more in line with Howard’s, or at least with what Tottel felt the popular audience would appreciate. Regardless of motive, Tottel’s version certainly interferes with the originality, and probably the intention, of Wyatt’s work. This ambiguity and confusion has arisen with each published edition of Wyatt’s poetry. Editors have tried to rationalize Wyatt’s work with punctuation to assist interpretation. However, the general result is that each edition becomes an individual judgment on the perceived intent of the writer. There is a subtlety in Wyatt’s ambiguity which contrasts beautifully with his rawness of language and expression.

The most reliable source of Wyatt’s work, therefore, is the Egerton Manuscript. This version contains revisions and annotations in Wyatt’s own handwriting. There have been investigations into the meaning and implications of Wyatt’s various annotations, but the key point of establishing Wyatt’s awareness of and involvement in this collection is a strong indicator of authenticity.