The Reading Room
The Freedom of Poets: Thomas Wyatt as a Character in Wolf Hall
Sir Thomas Wyatt, a Tudor courtier, the first English translator of Petrarch’s sonnets, and a famous poet in his own right, is a supporting but important character in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels. Mantel first introduces him when his father asks Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s notorious fixer and the protagonist of the novels, to look after his son as he tries to make his way in the court of Henry VIII.
This is odd on two levels. The first is that Wyatt is already in his mid-twenties when the novels begin: well past the age of majority in sixteenth-century England. The second is that Wyatt, in Mantel’s depiction of him, is one of the few characters in the novels who seems entirely unafraid of the might of the Tudor monarchy. One of our first encounters with him—and the one that provokes the most admiration from Cromwell—occurs during the tasteless masque celebrating the death of Cardinal Wolsey. While Henry VIII’s inamorata Anne Boleyn and her ghastly uncle, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, cheer the devils hauling Wolsey down to hell, someone in the crowd shouts, “Shame on you, Thomas Howard! You’d have sold your own soul to see Thomas Wolsey down!” Although he’s never quite sure, Cromwell believes that it was Wyatt. He both admires Wyatt’s courage and fears for him, a dual disposition that persists throughout the novels and is perhaps best conveyed when he locks up Wyatt in the Tower of London during Anne Boleyn’s trial and execution to save the poet’s life.
In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell and one of his retainers, Thomas Wriothesley, indulge in a little literary criticism:
“‘If I were Wyatt,’ Call-Me says, ‘I would have made sure no one misconstrued me. I would have stayed away from Caesar’s wife.’“‘That is the wise course.’ [Cromwell] smiles. ‘But it is not for him. It is for people like you and me.’
“When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive; and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if the subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your eyes as it flies away. A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it.”
The poem that they are referencing is perhaps Wyatt’s most famous, a very loose riff on one of his Petrarch translations called “Whoso list to hunt”:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is a hind,But as for me, helas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow, I leave off therefore
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written, her fair neck roundabout:
Noli me tangere,* for Caesar's I am,And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
The initial contradiction in the poem that seems both compelling and helpful to think about is the contrast between the wild and the tame, nature and civilization, and the interaction and relationship between the two. The poem starts in the forest and in the natural world. In the second and third lines, the speaker reveals that his experience of the wild is mere memory and regret: the pursuit of the “hind” (female deer, often with quasi-mystical significance in medieval chivalric literature and heraldry) has left him “wearied” and “sore.” (The word “wearied” is repeated twice, in wearying fashion indeed.) In lines 5-8, we learn that the truth is a little more complicated. Unlike a wild animal in pursuit of another wild animal, the speaker is a human, and so doesn’t lose the sense of the quest as easily. Even though he is weary and sore, his mind cannot be drawn away from the pursuit of the hind. The poem then takes a surprising turn, as the speaker follows her by fainting, or falling into a kind of dream or trance, but then the next line has him leave off again, perhaps waking up to the realization that he cannot catch the wind in a net. “Wind” is a “reading rhyme,” a word that looks like it rhymes on the page with “hind” and “behind” earlier in the disjointed rhyme scheme (more on that later), but doesn’t when you say it out loud. At this point in the poem, it reads like a kind of failure, or at the very least a tragic truth. He can’t catch the hind in his rhyme scheme, either, even as he realizes that the quest as he initially formulated it was wrong in the first place—which does count as a kind of hard-won truth, just as this is a hard-won rhyme.
The remaining six lines of the poem shift us into civilization, which is characterized in multiple ways. The first (starting with lines 8-9) is civilization as manifest in argument and rhetoric, a human political enterprise that implies an organization that is less visible in the octet. The speaker is reaching out to his fellow potential pursuers, making a rhetorical case for why they should not spend their time in vain as he has (even as he makes a joke in line 10 about how reading this argument is also vain, presumably because it will deter none). By line 11, we are fully in the world of civilization, with writing and engraved diamond collars, and, eventually, Latin and empires in line 13.
The final line is a masterpiece, and one that compels us to go back to the beginning of the poem to rethink whether our initial juxtapositions were correct. The creature of civilization, the hind wearing the diamond collar, is wild though she seems tame. The collar does not make her tamer, in other words, but increases her wildness. Does that argue, then, that the civilizational veneer in the poem’s sestet was only a veneer in the first place? That all of these things that we consider marks of taming wildness and taming the wildness of human nature (rhetoric, collars, diamonds, pomp, circumstances, empires) were really just refinements of cruelty and possession in the first place? We travel back to the first line. This is a hunt with an odd reservation and modification: the “list.” Listing to hunt, in the way that Wyatt was talking about it here, was formally enrolling to hunt on someone’s land, and is a very different thing than wild hunting. It’s already organization imposed on the natural and wild versions of itself, but one that tends to hide itself, too, underneath a surface-level claim that hunting is natural and gets us in touch with our wild natures. The poem’s very odd rhyme scheme (ABBABBBishCDDCDishD) and those near-miss rhymes seem to underscore how badly everything is jumbled up here, any sharp distinctions breaking down in the rhyme scheme itself.
In Wolf Hall, Henry and Cromwell have an illuminating conversation about hunting: another one that I think might have been inspired by this Wyatt poem. Cromwell and Henry, in one of their first conversations, are chatting about la chasse (the chase) or the hunt. Henry asks Cromwell if he is of Thomas More’s opinion that the whole thing is barbaric, and Cromwell replies in very Cromwellian fashion that he favors anything that is cheaper than war. Henry takes up the point and adds, “we usually say, we gentlemen, that the chase prepares us for war.”
There it is: a natural and primitive thing prepares for and bleeds into the political and civilizational, revealing that it was there all along. The assertion of “gentlemen” on Henry’s part not only insults Cromwell (who was not born one, and therefore, Henry is about to argue, cannot understand the compelling glory of war) but also imposes social ranks and hierarchy on what begins as natural. (As a youthful and freer Cromwell puts it in a silly, conventional rhyme earlier in the book: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”) It is the assertion of political dominance as somehow being grounded in the natural, while drawing attention to its own created and artificial character. That’s the lie and contradiction that the Wyatt poem exposes so masterfully: what seems wild and ungoverned, a matter of natural merit and ability, is actually a product of political organization and hierarchy that is merely trying to assert its groundedness in the natural. At the same time, politics and human organization only serves as a veneer for our less admirable wild instincts for cruelty and possession. “You may not touch me” as a command is both a product of civilization that recognizes social hierarchy and the rights of kings and princes and also simply codifies natural and primitive sexual possession.
When Cromwell tells Wriothesley that there are rules for the two of them that do not apply to Wyatt, I read this as an acceptance of Henry’s natural right to all of the hinds of the kingdom. There was, of course, an English tradition that the animals in the forests did all belong to the monarchy. But Cromwell, who knows Henry well, also imposes this understanding on all of Henry’s human “hinds,” as well.
But these rules do not constrain Wyatt, who—like a bird or any natural animal—retains his right to love whom he wishes, and to put her in poetry. It is a freedom that Cromwell, who is first and foremost a political creature, cannot allow himself. The act of poetry itself is an act of daring and natural grace, and only open to those who might fly above and below their meaning. Henry is jealous of Wyatt’s poetry in the book, seeming to recognize it as a natural talent that he—for all of his possession of kingship—cannot command, because even he cannot order himself to be a better poet than Wyatt. In Mantel’s tragic world of Tudor politics, one that ensnares Cromwell, there is only one free man, and it is not even the king.