The Reading Room

The Freedom of Poets 2: Thomas Wyatt and Petrarch

Shannon Chamberlain, in her Reading Room post on the character of Thomas Wyatt in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, offers a lovely reading of the historical Wyatt’s brilliant sonnet, “Whoso List to Hunt.” 
Emphasizing the poem’s dichotomy between wildness and civilization as an exploration of the wildness that often hides just beneath an apparently tamed civility, Chamberlain shows how Mantel also draws on these themes in her depiction of Henry VIII’s court. She concludes with the freedom that Mantel’s Cromwell attributes to Wyatt, the freedom of poetry contrasted with the confining law of political life.Chamberlain’s reading of Wyatt’s sonnet only becomes more interesting when placed in dialogue with Wyatt’s source, the 190th sonnet of Francesco Petrarca’s (or Petrarch’s) Canzoniere. Wyatt’s free hand in reworking his Petrarchan model points to a different sort of freedom than the one described by Cromwell. In order to see this freedom, however, we must begin with Petrarch’s original.
Una candida cerva sopra l’erbaverde m’apparve, con duo corna d'oro,
fra due riviere, all’ombra d'un alloro,
levando ’l sole a la stagione acerba.

Era sua vista sì dolce superba
ch’ i’ lasciai per seguirla ogni lavoro,
come l’avaro che ’n cercar tesoro
con diletto l’affanno disacerba.

“Nessun mi tocchi,” al bel collo d’intorno
scritto avea di diamanti et di topazi.
“Libera farmi al mio Cesare parve.”

Et era ’l sol già vòlto al mezzo giorno,
gli occhi miei stanchi di mirar, non sazi,quand’ io caddi ne l’acqua et ella sparve.
In Petrarch’s sonnet, a white doe (candida cerva) presents itself to the poet in a pastoral setting, beneath a laurel tree with clear allegorical import, pointing both to Petrarch’s beloved, Laura, and to the laureate crown he seeks as a poet. Struck by this vision of purity, Petrarch abandons all other pursuits, likening himself to a miser (l’avaro) who, following Robert Durling’s translation, “as he seeks treasure sweetens his troubles with delight.”Petrarch’s dichotomy, then, is not between savage wildness and the supposed tameness of civilization, but rather between an otherworldly pastoral and miserly worldliness, between the contemplative and the active life, between Christian and pagan worldviews. The context of the hunt, so critical to Wyatt’s reconception of the poem’s dichotomy, is at most hinted at in the original. Rather than chasing his vision, Petrarch follows (seguirla); and at the sonnet’s end, his visionary doe disappears as he falls, exhausted, into unspecified but clearly allegorical water.

As Chamberlain had suggested of wilderness and civilization in Wyatt’s reworking of the sonnet, Petrarch’s dichotomies between active pagan worldliness and contemplative Christian pastoral don’t quite stay in place. Laura, of whom Petrarch’s doe is an allegorical embodiment, figures both earthly (if unrequited) and divine love, not unlike her Dantean predecessor, Beatrice.

Laura’s allegorical link to the classical poet’s laureate crown adds a further complication. Is Petrarch’s pursuit of this doe an expression of “miserly” lust? A prideful desire for literary fame? Or is this pursuit an allegory of the ways in which our fallen desires can be gradually redirected to higher, Christian purposes?

The collar on Petrarch’s doe further highlights these mingled meanings. Petrarch offers an Italian translation (Nessun mi tocchi) of the Latin “Noli me tangere” in Wyatt’s poem, a phrase which simultaneously evokes both Classical and Christian precedents. Early commentators linked the collar to a passage from Solinus’s Polyhistor (19.18) recounting Alexander the Great’s collaring of Scythian deer, though the ancedote does not include Petrarch’s textual tag. Even so, the collar clearly points to the hunting rights asserted (at times) by both classical and early modern secular authority—hence Petrarch’s Cesare.

But the predominant reference for Petrarch’s phrase, even masked in Italian, was the resurrected Christ’s admonition to Mary Magdalene, in John 20:17, not to touch him before his ascension. His invocation of Caesar makes this even clearer.  His collar emphasizes not merely Caesar’s possession of the doe—an expression entirely in keeping with a Christian allegorical reading—but that in fact Caesar has made her free (libera farmi). The doe’s freedom, then, is a gift given rather than a right asserted, and it is that gift which makes her untouchable. This certainly sounds like the Christian freedom made possible by grace.

But whether understood as Christian freedom or as protection granted by a secular authority, the liberty of Petrarch’s doe is entirely absent from Wyatt’s sonnet. Nowhere is this clearer than in his reworking of the collar’s second phrase: “for Caesar’s I am.” Rather than liberty or munificence, Caesar’s authority is highlighted. In the place of the doe’s freedom, Wyatt’s hind is “wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”

It's worth noting that Wyatt did not arrive at these changes all on his own. Though he was clearly familiar with Petrarch’s original (it was one of a number of Petrarch’s sonnets he translated into English), most scholars believe he was also familiar with Giovanni Antonio Romanello’s late 15th Century reworking of the sonnet. The collar on Romanello’s cerva gentil includes the Latin “Caerasis enim sum” anglicized by Wyatt.

Moreover, Romanello also opens the sextet of his sonnet by describing his fleeing doe as a wild beast (silvaggio fera). Here we have some hint of the wildness so central to Wyatt’s poem, though not contrasted with civilization. Romanello also invokes a falcon in describing the doe’s “flight.” Though Wyatt does not incorporate that metaphor into “Whoso list to hunt,” he does have a poem devoted to his falcon that probably served as the inspiration for Hilary Mantel’s use of falcons as a metaphor for Cromwell’s family network in Part 1 of Bring Up the Bodies.

But notwithstanding these precedents, it would be a mistake to underestimate Wyatt’s freedom in his handling of Petrarch. Wildness may make a brief appearance in Romanello’s poem, but in Wyatt’s reworking, it entirely consumes the pastoral allegory which for Petrarch serves as a contrast to worldly striving. Gone, too, is the laurel tree, with its potentially ennobling gesture toward a more contemplative if still worldly endeavor. Only the hunt remains.

Though Wyatt’s hind retains Petrarch’s scriptural allusions on its collar, those allusions now seem to function merely as an exercise in plausible deniability. No reader familiar with Wyatt’s biography (or with access to scholarly footnotes, for that matter) has ever genuinely wondered which Caesar is being alluded to as the hind’s owner. There is no ascension or gift of Christian freedom to offer relief from worldly strife in his sonnet, only the wearied soreness of “them that farthest cometh behind.”

Moreover, Wyatt presents himself as one amongst a field of hunters, all in pursuit of the same end. Whether this hunt is understood primarily to figure amorous courtly affairs, or as a larger metaphor for the political striving that played out alongside such affairs, Wyatt’s sonnet is not just about an individual experience. Instead, the experience is made an instance of a larger cultural phenomenon. I am doubtful that Wyatt experienced the freedom from politics that Mantel’s Cromwell attributes to him. Though clothed within the hunt, his sonnet offers nothing but worldly engagement, unattainable, and yet equally unescapable. As he himself acknowledges, “Yet may I by no means my wearied mind / Draw from the deer.” But in taking poetic liberties with Petrarch’s sonnet, he was able to fashion a powerful if allegorical account of that political world. In this sense, at least, Wyatt’s poetry did provide him the freedom to tell us his tale.  It is a tale that rewards attention.