Graven With Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Poet, Lover, Statesman, and Spy in the Court of Henry VIIIby Nicola Shulman
Poet, statesman, spy, lover of Anne Boleyn and favorite both of Henry VIII and his sinister minister
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In this thrillingly entertaining book, Nicola Shulman interweaves the bloody events of Henry VIII's reign with the story of English love poetry and the life of its first master, Henry VIII's most glamorous and enigmatic subject: Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Poet, statesman, spy, lover of Anne Boleyn and favorite both of Henry VIII and his sinister minister Thomas Cromwell, the brilliant Wyatt was admired and envied in equal measure. His love poetry began as risqué entertainment for ambitious men and women at the slippery top of the court. But when the axe began to fall and Henry VIII's laws made his subjects fall silent in terror, Wyatt's poetic skills became a way to survive. He saw that a love poem was a place where secrets could hide.
A "refreshing counterpoint to typical books on Tudor politics and religion." -- Winnipeg Free Press
"A distinguished courtier, probable lover of Anne Boleyn, and the first English poet to write a sonnet, Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) was well positioned to make a name in belles lettres, as this lively biography attests. . . . Shulman deftly interweaves close readings of Wyatt’s poems through her reconstruction of Henry VIII’s court, showing how they illuminated dalliances and intrigues and even could be read as a commentary on the Reformation after Henry severed ties with Rome. Shulman’s vivacious prose complements her scholarship. . . . Her delightful book puts polish to a potentially dusty era." -- Publishers Weekly
"Concerned with a nexus of history and literature, Shulman’s sophistication will inveigle readers of both genres." -- Booklist
"A nuanced look at the poetry and life of Thomas Wyatt. Along with just about everyone else in the court of Henry VIII, Wyatt, who brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England, had to master the intricacies of the survival dance in that era—or kneel before the chopping block. . . . Readers of Hilary Mantel’s two novels about Thomas Cromwell will enjoy seeing him in a different context. Shulman also reveals her own considerable lyrical chops. . . . A gracefully written, thoroughly researched story of an agile and articulate survivor." -- Kirkus Reviews
"A fluid, poised, quick-witted dance through the poetic and political career of one of the most elusive, glittering figures of Tudor England." -- Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall
“Masterly… the best work of history this year” -- AN Wilson, Evening Standard
"A brilliant example of literary rehabilitation... A thrilling book that manages to be both scholarly and wonderfully readable" -- Kathryn Hughes, Mail on Sunday
"Beautifully intelligent and lucid" -- John Lanchester, New Statesman
"Glitteringly brilliant... Everyone who cares anything for poetry should read this vivid, dynamic and exhilarating account of how and why words matter." -- Times Literary Supplement
"Both sparkling and scholarly. Nothing I’ve ever read about the court of Henry VIII has made it so vivid… A gem." -- Cressida Connolly, Spectator
“Sharp, dangerous and exhilarating” -- Geordie Greig, Evening Standard
"Poised, lucid, often arresting and frequently witty" -- John Guy, Sunday Times
"Really exciting: a literary thriller... I'm already dreading finishing it." -- Rachel Cooke, Independent
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Read an Excerpt
Time that is intolerant1
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
W.H. Auden wrote these verses to commemorate the events of January 1939, the month that W.B. Yeats departed life and Auden, England and her coming wars. He later took them out on grounds of tact; but he left in the famous parting shot that liberated poets from their political responsibilities. ‘Poetry makes nothing happen,’ he wrote; meaning, it is not the business of poets to be right, or brave, or just, or useful. What poets should do, is write well.
These words, and the ones above, kept recurring all the time I was making this book about Sir Thomas Wyatt. It was partly because there are just comparisons to be made between Auden and Wyatt. The pair of them are the lyric poets who bookend the period of England’s political greatness; both are poets of unreciprocated feeling, of frenetic inertia, and of fear. But I think the main reason why these particular lines kept coming back to me was that Wyatt’s posthumous career refutes them on every count.
It isn’t hard to refute Auden’s claims for language. Anyone surveying the literary scene of half a millennium or so ago will of course find the intervening prospect strewn with the husks of writers whose gifts have not, in fact, survived, contrary to the expectation of their peers: the 14th-century lyricist ‘Richard’, for instance, the undisputed literary star of the baronial hall:
Richard, root of reason right,2
In poetry and rune and rhyme,
Of gentle maidens you can write
The finest verses of our time!
As gentle-tempered as a knight,
A scholar versed in mysteries,
In every house his fame is bright
No longer. Now no one knows who ‘Richard’ was, or which of the surviving lyrics he wrote, if any. Time has never had a soft spot for language. In our own reading lifetimes especially, it has turned on language as if with the dedicated aim of proving Auden wrong. Writing styles that seemed to us supple and exact only 20, 30 years ago begin to coarsen and sag; they even develop the very same look of faintly shameful grotesquerie that human beauty assumes in decay. No need for names; we can all think of examples closer to home than a semi-obscure courtier poet like Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder. But the case of Wyatt has a special relevance. For time has forgiven him on both of Auden’s counts – that is, for being dead, and for being frail – despite an almost universal consensus that he can’t write. Down the centuries whenever his name is spoken, there has been someone to say that language, far from living in him eternally, was dead in him to begin with. Even his first promoter, the Earl of Surrey, thought his work ‘unparfited’ (unperfected). By Shakespeare’s time he was politely acknowledged as a pioneer3 but commonly held as a joke; his badness was rediscovered in the 18th century and again in the 19th when his first proper editor, George Nott, found him an unoriginal thinker, clumsy translator and a harsh versifier. Few disagreed, but by the middle of the twentieth century he had somehow, in defiance of this, become established in the English literature canon and a fixture on the university syllabus; while continuing to disappoint those scholars who elected to study him. ‘Can we doubt,’ asked his editor, H.A. Mason, in 1959, ‘that if we had all the songs sung at court between Chaucer and Wyatt we should be able to shew that every word and phrase used by Wyatt was a commonplace? … There is not the slightest trace of poetic activity.’4 Likewise, C.S. Lewis defended him with the barely discernible commendation: ‘When he is bad he is flat or even null. And when he is good he is hardly one of the irresistible poets.’ Thirty years later, when I was an undergraduate, some eminent professors thought him too bad to teach.
And yet, he has triumphed. Behind Wyatt’s reluctant champions other voices emerged to admire the ‘plainness’ of his style. Poets in particular got his point. Historicist critics meanwhile, looking at the past from the end of their terrible century, began to realise that Wyatt, like Mandelstam or Akhmatova, was a poet writing under tyranny, who might yield insights into life under the Tudor Stalin. And so he has survived in the universities – where extensive new editions of Wyatt’s diplomatic letters, his political, religious and secular poetry are now in preparation – and out of them, where his love lyrics continue to be read, collected, anthologised, quoted and printed in new selections. He has survived, as C.S. Lewis says ‘in the only sense that really matters: his works are used as their author meant them to be used’. And here is the really crucial word for any discussion of Wyatt and his works: used. Wyatt intended his poems for use. Five hundred years later we still use them. Though it is not approved for serious readers to seek their own experience in literature, self-recognition is what most people want out of love poetry; in Wyatt they find it directly. When we read for the first time such lines as
The stars be hid that led me to this pain,
They flee from me that sometime did me seek,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind5
we are conscious of a thrill of acquisition. Here is something we can use.
All lyric poetry aims at the impersonal expression of some intense experience, but few achieve it so purely as Wyatt. There is a difference in intention, for example, between two simple lover’s ‘plaints’ separated by 100 years:
Go, lovely rose –
Tell her that wastes her time and me
That now she knows
When I resemble her to thee
How sweet and fair she seems to be.
To wish and want and not obtain
To seek and sue ease of my pain
Since all I ever do is vain
What may it avail me.6
Neither of them got the girl. But if we take the Waller, we have to imagine we are him, with his girl and his rose and his framework of 17th-century manners. While we can appreciate the sentiment, we are obliged to take it within its context. No such impediments prevent the Wyatt from delivering its shot of self-recognition: he hands us a howl of frustration to use on anyone we like. It’s the difference between a book token and a ten-pound note.
This, as we shall see, is the strength of Wyatt’s lyrics; but it is one of the problems with him as a biographical subject. Another is the availability of source material, which is very scarce until 1536 and then comparatively abundant in the years of his diplomatic work. There is nothing remarkable about this: diplomats sent letters, courtiers didn’t. Henry VIII’s court, where Thomas Wyatt spent most of life, was not a place of paper transactions. Business was done lip to ear and face to face. Petitioners, waiting for days to place a word with the right person, delivered their message by mouth. The most important man at court, Sir Henry Norris, died without leaving a single letter. The exception to this paperless existence is the lyric poetry of the inner court, much of it written by Sir Thomas Wyatt. It’s almost all that remains of the private life of the court.
For all of these reasons, the present book is not intended as a life of Thomas Wyatt but as a life of his lyric poetry. Unlike most books on his love lyrics, it is not concerned with how he wrote – his metrics – or what he wrote – the complex canon of his verse. This is a book about the uses of Wyatt’s love poetry: why he wrote. He wrote at a time when poetry made things happen. Not just Wyatt’s poetry – though that too – but all the poetry, ancient and modern, which the early Tudor court admired, wherein the attitudes and activities which are the central concern of this book were distilled and which, for the sake of concision, I will sometimes call ‘poetry’. At Henry’s court, Sir Thomas Wyatt and his poems were the hub and centre of this; and if we run the story of Wyatt’s life and times behind his lyrics, they – these apparently slight, unaddressed, undated, unadorned songs – will show us that they had more uses than we might imagine. Not all of their uses are evident to us now. Some of them would have been hidden even to Wyatt, at the outset. When Wyatt began to write poems he could not have guessed into what strange service they would be pressed by the changing times. To see their changing purpose is the purpose of this book.
The story of Thomas Wyatt begins, appropriately enough, at a place which is not what it seems: the battlefield of Bosworth Field, where the rebel Henry Tudor challenged the last Plantagenet king, Richard III. Recent scholarship has discovered that this battle was neither what we thought it was, nor where: Richard and Henry’s captains fought with bullets at a place a mile or more away from the site where tourists come to dream of plumed and lancéd warriors at its newly redundant visitor centre.
But for Richard, the outcome was the same: he ended the day as a corpse, strapped, like a sack, over the back of a horse, ‘nought being left about him so much as would cover his privy member’. He had feared as much. He had lately lost his son and heir, and along with him the certainty of God’s support for his kingship. The night before the battle he was visited with premonitions of doom.
Henry Tudor, his upstart adversary, had spent the eve of the battle in a more resourceful frame of mind. He had done something then to demonstrate the peculiar genius for creative self-legitimising that would come to characterise his line. Though only an earl with a scant trickle of royal blood in him, he sent a letter signing himself ‘the King’, thus pre-dating the start of his reign to the day before his insurrection. By this simple manoeuvre, he transformed treason to sovereign loyalty. It meant that the next day, King Richard’s general, Sir William Stanley, could change sides in the middle of the battle with no loss of allegiance to a crown that was on Richard’s head at the time. It meant that the Duke of Norfolk, loyal to Richard, could be attainted for treason, with his titles and lands removed; and his family, the Howards, plunged into ignominy until the Tudor or his heirs saw fit to restore them.
Good luck for the Stanleys, bad luck for the Howards, neither of whom felt any particular personal loyalty to the individual they had backed. After decades of civil war during which they had had to rally behind a succession of insecure and transient monarchs, they had learned that loyalty was a transferable asset and what mattered was not the incumbent but the legitimacy of monarchy itself. Norfolk’s son, Thomas Howard, spoke for many change-sickened subjects when he explained his family’s position to the new king, Henry VII: ‘[Richard] was my crowned king, and if the parliamentary authority of England set the crown on a stock, I will fight for that stock. As I fought then for him, I will fight for you.’
There were among this crowd of waverers some who had taken another view, and one of them was a Kentish gentleman of dim northern origins, called Henry Wyatt. This Wyatt, so the family chronicle tells us, supported Henry Tudor during bad times. Under the Yorkist king Edward IV and his brother, Richard III, there had been an active policy of bringing the civil wars to an end by killing any Lancastrian with a claim to the throne. Young Henry Tudor’s title, though notoriously weak, was not beneath that kind of notice. He fled to France with his uncle and a small band of fellow exiles, leaving his English supporters behind to do what they thought best in the circumstances. Henry Wyatt, who must have been a person of some substance even then, was noticed, arrested and put in prison by Richard III.
King Richard tried to talk him round: ‘Wyatt, why art thou such a fool? Thou servest for moonshine in the water. Thy master is a beggarly fugitive. Forsake him and become mine. I can reward thee, and swear unto thee I will.’ ‘Sir,’ was Wyatt’s answer, ‘If I had first chosen you for my master, thus faithful would I have been to you, if you should have needed it; but the Earl [of Richmond, Henry Tudor], poor and unhappy though he be, is my master, and no discouragement or allurement shall ever drive or draw me from him.’1
This passage appears in some Wyatt family papers compiled by a descendant, partly published in the 19th century by the antiquarian John Bruce, and sharing a tendency to emphasise devotion and blamelessness as typical Wyatt characteristics. The earliest anecdote concerns Sir Henry, harshly imprisoned for his fidelity, as we have seen, and only saved from starving because a passing cat took pity on him and agreed to supply him with pigeons. This is rather hard to believe, even for stout admirers of cats, and casts the shadow of doubt upon the other dramatic assertion in the story, that Sir Henry’s captors tortured him with a horse-barnacle. A barnacle was a farrier’s tool, a hinged implement a bit like a sharply serrated nutcracker, used to subdue horses. An open barnacle would be positioned where the horses’ muzzle is soft and loose, then pinched shut and twisted. It would be used in much the same way on a man. It sounds unlikely, but there are a number of reasons to believe it true.
First of all, the Wyatts made a virtue of this ordeal, alluding to it wherever possible as a symbol of their pioneering loyalty to the Tudors. Henry Wyatt commissioned some ‘carpets’ – that is, tapestries, for public display – ‘in which the figure of the barnacles is eminently conspicuous’ says Bruce, adding that the tapestries were still in the family possession in 1735. His son Thomas added a commemorative barnacle to his coat of arms in early 1537: a sensitive moment, as we shall see. And there is another reason. Holbein’s portrait of Wyatt, now in the Louvre, shows him with a curiously weak, almost lifeless musculature in the lower half of his face. The cheeks hang from his bones like cloths from a rail, most unlike the firmly modelled cheeks and lips of Holbein’s other sitters. The lower lip flops open to show the sole survivor of a row of herbivorous teeth. He is not the only old, cold man Holbein painted, but he’s the only one who has chosen to put his broken teeth on display. In fact, he is the only one of all Holbein’s sitters, both in England and elsewhere, to show his teeth at all.
When Henry Tudor became King Henry VII, he took Wyatt on in the accountancy department. We can assume that he was a very, very good accountant, for history has singled out this king for his genius at thrift, and the choosing of brilliant men to serve him: as G.R. Elton remarked, ‘not even Elizabeth surrounded herself with a brighter galaxy of first-rate ministers than did her grandfather.’ Henry had inherited an empty treasury, and now supplied it with a system of creative taxation that turned all connections, all relations, all arrangements with his subjects into financial transactions. He began by divesting those ‘traitors’ who had fought for King Richard at Bosworth Field of their wealth and lands, and continued in the same vein, taking fees for favours and fines for wrongdoing , with special emphasis on trimming the great nobles of lands and of men who might be persuaded to fight for an ancient name against the Tudor upstart. The fines for retaining were particularly sharp.2
A small, private gentleman with no ambitions that his monarch didn’t share could prosper under this arrangement, particularly if he was clever with money; and Henry Wyatt prospered amazingly. An early grant of lands commends his ‘services in England and beyond seas’. This may mean that he served Henry Tudor on business in Scotland, where Wyatt seems to have undergone another period of imprisonment, or in exile in Brittany; in either case it meant he was one of a tiny, exclusive set of men whom the king trusted. Once in the king’s employment, he acquired lands, grants and positions with admirable rapidity. He was a justice of the peace, was placed on various commissions of audit and investigation, and in 1504 he was made a member of the king’s council. He was appointed keeper of the jewel house in the third year of the reign, then controller of the mint, keeper of the change, essayer of the king’s money and coinage: positions connected with the collection, valuation, allocation and transportation of the king’s swelling revenues. The gatekeeper of the king’s coffers was someone everyone wanted to know, and Henry Wyatt farmed his influence well. He became extremely rich and formed a series of useful alliances in town and at court, not least amongst a group of important Kentish families including the Guildfords, the Cobhams and the Boleyns. These were more splendid men than Wyatt, with grander antecedents and more refined, honorific positions at court. The fact that they had properties in Kent was in itself an indication of current favour, since Kent was a turbulent region, sensitively located between London and continental Europe, and lands and offices here were only granted to the most demonstrably loyal of the king’s servants.
Henry Wyatt’s cultivation of this group was part of a long, careful programme of aspiration and adherence that would not yield its full rewards until the next reign. It included the purchase, in 1497, of Allington Castle in Kent. This was a lovely moated building of ancient foundation, and still exists in an altered version. Its silver-white battlements are set at water-level, low in a piece of land like a tipped bowl, with wooded hills round one side and round the other, the Medway River that runs into the Thames and thence, conveniently, to Richmond Palace, Henry VII’s favourite residence. It was like living on a good branch line.
Wyatt improved it. It was difficult to consolidate lands around Allington because they tended to be parcelled into small plots under several ownerships, but Wyatt addressed the problem with a demonstration of the fiscal creativity that endeared him to two Tudor kings: he extended credit to his poorer neighbours, then foreclosed on them, obliging them to sell.3 He also brought the house up to the requisite spec. for high-level entertaining. In went fashionable large windows and new fireplaces (to replace the lost heat), a new kitchen, and a lady’s bower for the wife he married at the age of 42: one Anne Skinner, of Reigate in Surrey. In 1503, the first of their three children was born. This was Thomas, a blond and blue-eyed child who appeared equipped with every quality that an ambitious, first-generation father hopes to see in his son and heir. He was clever, quick-witted, fluent, studious, tall, graceful and athletic: good-looking enough to play himself on network television – the very boy, in short, to go for a courtier and complete Henry Wyatt’s programme of advancement. The younger son, Henry, remained in the country and seems to have come to so little that the case for him having existed at all rests largely on the steps his father took to exclude him from his estates.4 Henry Wyatt was now one of the largest landowners in Kent, and he wanted his oldest son to have everything.
* * * *
It was once settled among historians that the principal difference between the court of Henry VIII, where Thomas Wyatt grew up, and that of Henry VII, where Henry VIII himself grew up, was that the father’s court was frugal and the son’s magnificent. As far as historiography is concerned, however, we live in an age of demolition. Historians of the last 50 years have bent themselves to plucking out useful boundary lines, denouncing historical platitudes and bundling off any anecdote, no matter how ancient, amusing and illustrative, that can’t account for itself on paper. The earliest Tudor period has attracted much notice of this sort, with the result that the long-held view of Henry VII as a man of cheerless parsimony, hosing down the firewood in the grates in Richmond Palace with his account book tucked underneath his arm, has made way for a new account of Henry VII as master of a splendid court, a patron of arts, builder of palaces, leader of the hunt, putter-on of jousts and revels, feaster of foreign ambassadors robed in coats of cloth-of-gold. But the element of exuberance, the keynote of his son’s establishment, is missing: most of this was a calculated display of magnificence to support the legitimacy of a kingship resting principally on the king’s own assertion of the fact. The allegiance of the men who had listed to his side in 1485 was by no means secure, and foreign countries would hesitate to treat with a shifting nest of squabbling barons. He wished to be treated like a king, so he must look like one, and do what kings did. Accordingly, he set aside time for ‘crown-wearing’ sessions, occasions where subjects could nourish conviction in his kinghood by viewing him seated silently on a throne in his robes and crown.
One of the things that kings did in the late 15th century was participate in the craze for chivalry. Chivalry was not new, but had been recently revived in the most splendid court of the late medieval period, that of the dukes of Burgundy, and had found an enthusiastic uptake in all the courts of Europe. Although England was often a dog-leg on the itinerary of European culture, it was not in this case. Arthur’s court, of course, had been in England, and this gave the English, situated though they were on the edge of the known world, a natural stake in the matter. Indeed, the main discernable aim of English letters in the century preceding the Tudors was to reclaim the Arthurian legends from the French, who had made a whole literature around them, with a programme of translation and adaptation of the French texts.
One can scarcely overstate the degree of influence that chivalric notions exerted over the princely class of late 15th and early 16th-century Europe. In the education of rulers, chivalry formed the third leg of a princely tripos, the other two being religion and those ideas of Renaissance humanism that would in time supplant both the others, but which, in its initial stages, chivalry could incorporate and, with a surprising show of suppleness, adapt to its own ends. The princes of the early 16th century believed themselves the pattern of chivalric virtue, and none more so than Henry VIII.
The school of chivalry offered an extensive curriculum of social organisation, moral observance, personal conduct, of martial combat and sexual relations, expressed through a variety of disciplines including art, literature and a vigorous programme of outdoor games. These last had been devised as training exercises for knights in real combat, but by the accession of Henry VII, wars were already fought with longbows and – as the finds at Bosworth Field confirm – gunpowder, and captained by professionals, and by the following reign, the realities of warfare had drifted far from the joust and the tourney. Specialist jousting armour was now developed solely for tournament use, far too heavy for proper fighting but perfect for breaking lances upon without harming the occupant of the suit. Nor was the knight himself what he used to be, as the early Tudors found it useful to expand the range of people entitled to bear arms. In other words, there was a conscious element of atavism at work in the tournament, operating to extract status from ancient and reputable activities and confer it on the not-so-ancient and reputable participants of the Tudor games. So when we think of plumed and armoured Henrician knights charging each other in the lists, fluttering with favours and larded with French mottos, we may see back to Crecy and Poitiers, but with a small adjustment of perspective we can see forward, as well, to the sporting excesses of Edwardian England, when beer magnates blackened the skies with gamebirds for the king, or even to the corporate junkets of today when city traders, kitted out as Edwardian gentlemen with tweed knickerbockers and walnut-stocked shotguns, shoot pheasants they rent by the day. To a man on the make like Henry Wyatt, a particularly appealing feature of
Allington Castle would have been its authentic tiltyard, reputedly the oldest in England.
Yet it would be quite wrong to suppose that the players thought they were participants in a romantic revival of a dead cause, for the purposes of window-dressing a legally dubious regime. On the contrary, they were in deadly earnest and regarded themselves as inheritors of a sacred charge. The three great princes, Henry VIII, Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain, all thought themselves the embodiment of chivalric virtue. All excelled at pageant sports, and the last two offered, more than once, to replace their warring armies with their own persons and solve their territorial disputes by hand-to-hand combat, king on king – though somehow these challenges always came at the wrong moment and were never taken up.
And yet – another qualification – this was a time of immense change, when medieval values mingled with those of the inpouring Renaissance humanism in varying degrees of emulsification – and so attitudes to chivalric ideals were neither static nor consistent. There were people who believed in them deeply and thought to find in them a model for a virtuous life; there were those who thought they were puerile nonsense; and there were those – perhaps the majority – who shifted their views as occasion demanded.
For a very clear instance of the latter position we must jump forward to 1536, when Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was sent by Henry VIII to put down a dangerous rebellion in the north of England. Finding himself outnumbered and perceiving the need to buy time, he made promises to the rebels on his honour as a nobleman, knowing their susceptibility to this appeal (one of their complaints was that the king took advice from men of lowly origin like his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell) and also knowing that he had already written to the king begging him to ‘take in good part [i.e. ignore]whatsoever promises I shall make unto the rebels… for surely I shall observe no part thereof for any respect of that other might call mine honour distained.’5 In other words, he exploited the belief in a chivalric code of honour in order to do something that violated every principle of that code. The interesting thing about this, however, is his own moral verdict on the matter: ‘none oath or promise made for policy to serve you, mine only master and sovereign, can distain me.’
To the modern reader this remark seems disingenuous, or cynical, or at the very least nervously optimistic. But we must allow for the possibility that he really believed it. The point that concerns us here is, how very hard it is to judge. Sincerity is hard to read across 500 years. It is often a question of tone. Time hates tone even more than it hates language, and, as Philip Larkin noted, quickly washes it away. Historians of early Tudor England often accuse one another of mistaking the tone and missing the point, but it is no wonder if they do, when the people who were alive at the time commonly, as we shall see, mistook one another’s meaning, took jokes for earnest and figures of speech for facts. These misinterpretations – the consequence of rapid change in language and the structure of society – would one day feed the wit of Shakespeare, but before that they were used for more sinister purposes, as convictions could be secured on a light remark, or a joke taken the wrong way. It is impossible, then and now, to know if a misunderstanding was genuine or deliberate. There was a lot of room for the disingenuous.
This is the essential background to the practice of love and production of love poetry that concerns us here; for these were open to misconstructions of precisely the same kind, and for the same reasons.
The poems are the remains of a peculiarly specialised and ultimately mysterious activity called ‘courtly love’. Courtly love was the domestic arm of chivalry and, like all chivalric practices, subject to erosions of sincerity in the years between the 12th century – when people were in earnest to some degree – and the late 16th, when it descended into ornamental pastiche. But what exactly was in earnest and what was in game is, again, hard to determine. Literary critics, like historians, cannot agree on matters of sincerity.
Chaucer is a good case in point. Critics know that Chaucer made jokes, both about love and about poetry, in the 14th century. In The Canterbury Tales, where a group of pilgrims including Chaucer compete to tell the best story on their journey to Canterbury, there is a very good joke about poetry. Chaucer, the narrator, gives himself a dreadful bit of chivalric doggerel called The Tale of Sir Thopas to tell. This poem is so dire that it offends the literary sensibilities of a Southwark publican, the referee of the contest, who cuts Chaucer off in mid-rhyme – Chaucer, poet to the most exquisitely refined court England had ever known – and makes him tell his tale in prose.
‘Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee,’
Quod our Hooste…
‘By God’, quod he, ‘for pleynly, at a word,
Thy drasty6 rymyng is nat worth a toord!7
Thou doost noght else but despendest8 tym
Sire, at O word, thou shalt no lenger rhyme’9
Everyone agrees that this is an excellent, sophisticated, many-layered joke. Chaucer’s courtly audience would have been particularly amused by it, as people are when flattered, because it pays an implicit compliment to their powers of discrimination: to get it, you need to know the difference between good verse and doggerel, as well as knowing who Chaucer is.
But what about this, also by Chaucer:
Nas never pyk walwed in galauntyne10
As I in love am walwed and ywounde
For which ful ofte I of myself devyne
That I am trewe Tristam the secounde.
(No pike was ever doused so deep in sauce as I am doused and embroiled in love, and so I often think of myself as a veritable second Tristam.)
Is this a joke? Was it a parody, aimed at the posturings of courtly lovers’ rhetoric? Was it also supposed to be a litmus for readerly sophistication? Not everyone thinks so: C.S. Lewis, that great 20th century investigator into medieval literature, thought it was an earnest but unsuccessful shot at a novel simile, and that anyone who thought its humour intentional was hopelessly divorced from the medieval cast of mind. C.S. Lewis’s sense of humour is arguably his own weak point. There is only one joke in the Narnia books.11 But it is also possible that even a poet as confident and witty, so irreverent of institutions, so astute in his observation of character and handling of verbal nuance, as Chaucer, could hit a duff note.
If he did, it was a sign of things to come: for the next 150 years, poetry in England declined astonishingly. Poets did not just cease to be good, they almost ceased to be poets at all: they couldn’t scan, or write two lines together in the same metre; all they could do was rhyme.
Academics have pondered the great mystery of this deterioration. The years of civil war, the instability of court life under constantly changing kings, the decimation of the great baronial houses as their menfolk died for York or Lancaster have all been held accountable. One ingenious theorist proposed that changes in pronunciation over this time – especially the loss of the pronounced terminal ‘e’ in Chaucerian English – rendered Chaucer’s metre inaudible to the poets of the following generations, causing confusion when they tried to imitate him. Some, like Lewis, concluded that people simply forgot how to do poetry and ‘that the causes of this barbarism are unknown’. At any rate, the years of civil war did nothing for England’s verse, and the poets of Henry VIII’s formative years were the most dismal of all her history.
What People are Saying About This
"Concerned with a nexus of history and literature, Shulman’s sophistication will inveigle readers of both genres." Booklist
"A nuanced look at the poetry and life of Thomas Wyatt. Along with just about everyone else in the court of Henry VIII, Wyatt, who brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England, had to master the intricacies of the survival dance in that era—or kneel before the chopping block. . . . Readers of Hilary Mantel’s two novels about Thomas Cromwell will enjoy seeing him in a different context. Shulman also reveals her own considerable lyrical chops. . . . A gracefully written, thoroughly researched story of an agile and articulate survivor." Kirkus Reviews
"A fluid, poised, quick-witted dance through the poetic and political career of one of the most elusive, glittering figures of Tudor England." Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall
“Masterly… the best work of history this year” AN Wilson, Evening Standard
"A brilliant example of literary rehabilitation... A thrilling book that manages to be both scholarly and wonderfully readable" Kathryn Hughes, Mail on Sunday
"Beautifully intelligent and lucid" John Lanchester, New Statesman
"Glitteringly brilliant... Everyone who cares anything for poetry should read this vivid, dynamic and exhilarating account of how and why words matter." Times Literary Supplement
"Both sparkling and scholarly. Nothing I’ve ever read about the court of Henry VIII has made it so vivid… A gem." Cressida Connolly, Spectator
“Sharp, dangerous and exhilarating” Geordie Greig, Evening Standard
"Poised, lucid, often arresting and frequently witty" John Guy, Sunday Times
"Really exciting: a literary thriller... I'm already dreading finishing it." Rachel Cooke, Independent
Meet the Author
Nicola Shulman is a writer and reviewer for publications including the Sunday Telegraph, The TLS and Harpers & Queen. She lives with her family in London and in Yorkshire. She previously published A Rage For Rock-Gardening: The Story of Reginald Farrer.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I originally was excited by this title, for I am a bit of a Tudor junkie, and find the machinations and intrigue of the court to be an interesting study of human behavior. To add in the poetry of Wyatt: placing the poems into the context of their crafting was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Most poetry of this time was highly contextualized, and was not meant to stand the test of time, so deeper examination of the Tudor court, with the author’s ability to separate fact from fiction, and present the information in a format that is pleasant to read and that does serve its contextual purpose for the poems that are included. While the book starts off with quite a bang, focus on the poetry and commentary provided by Wyatt through his poems documents the events in court; gossip, flirtations, intrigue and petty jealousies that are not documented in the more specialized record of diplomatic or court appointment books. However, Shulman does include this information in a way that only people familiar with Henry VIII’s habit of lopping off heads can enjoy. Sadly, the book does tail off as Wyatt’s short life comes to an inglorious end as he dies quite young, even for the time, at 39. In the few years prior, we are embroiled in Wyatt’s attempts at diplomacy and espionage, and the sharp and well defined tone when poetry was at the forefront does diminish. The text reads far more ponderously and isn’t as well integrated with the bits of gossip or intrigue. All in all, this is a very enjoyable book for the most part: the genius interweaving of the poetry and the context, finding specific stanzas and pieces of the poems that are oft quoted, reused and twisted as they pass from person to person in whispers and giggles. Shulman has a knack for bringing the past to life, and has accomplished that with few missteps. I received an eBook copy from the publisher via Eidelweiss for purpose of honest review on I am, Indeed. I was not compensated for this review. All conclusions are my own responsibility.
Interesting but very dry!