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Graven With Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Poet, Lover, Statesman, and Spy in the Court of Henry VIII

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Graven With Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Poet, Lover, Statesman, and Spy in the Court of Henry VIII

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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. In Shulman’s (A Rage for Rock-Gardening: The Story of Reginald Farrer) assessment, the state of English verse was in sad decline in the early Tudor era, and an educated and witty poet such as Wyatt easily became a master of the poetry of courtly love. A verse form that heaved with flirtation and frustration, courtly love poetry wasn’t intended as literature (none of Wyatt’s verse was published in his lifetime) so much as a means by which courtiers and royalty communicated, gossiped, and upheld standards of chivalry. 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. As she writes of the dearth of poetic talent in England between Chaucer and Shakespeare, “aspiring poets-and-lovers of Henry’s reign were treading the slack water between two towering waves of genius.” Her delightful book puts polish to a potentially dusty era. Agent: Caitlin McKenna, the Melanie Jackson Agency. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"Penetrating and witty . . . Justly acclaimed in Britain, it now appears here . . . Graven With Diamonds provides a briskly intelligent, sometimes maverick interpretation of the poet's verse and a revelatory look at the subtle craft of poetry in furthering the birth of the modern state." — Barnes and Noble Review

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 

Library Journal
If the average person knows the name of Thomas Wyatt, it's for a reason that's either risqué (his rumored affair with Anne Boleyn) or literary (his contributions to English lyric poetry). The poetic exploits interest UK writer Shulman, who delves into the poems to examine their meaning, quality, and significance to Wyatt himself. The resulting work falls somewhere between biography and literary analysis, for although Shulman touches on the aspects of Wyatt's life listed in the subtitle, she is most interested in their intersection with his poetry and in the ways poetic expression and courtly love pervaded the culture and politics of the Tudor world. Shulman's observations are intriguing and her prose is entertaining, whether she's detailing Wyatt's court life or teasing out layers of meaning from his sonnets, but she tends to stretch a point or an interpretation a bit too far in order to bolster her assertions. VERDICT Shulman's vibrant style, her distinctive approach to Wyatt's poetry, and the lack of other recent works on Wyatt make this a recommended read, although it lacks the rigor necessary to make it a true definitive work on the subject.—Kathleen McCallister, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
Kirkus Reviews
The author of A Rage for Rock-Gardening: The Story of Reginald Farrer (2004) returns with a nuanced look at the poetry and life of Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542). 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. (Wyatt somehow survived--barely--his king's bloody capriciousness.) Shulman charts the choreography of Wyatt's career during the time of Henry and later. She notes that his reputation as a poet had fallen considerably, but she, among others, is effecting a restoration. She sketches the rise of the Tudors and then rehearses the biographies of the wives of Henry VIII, noting along the way the roles that Wyatt played--or didn't play--on the marital merry-go-round. Throughout, the author closely examines Wyatt's various love poems, noting that he wrote not for publication but for circulation among friends and associates. She acknowledges one severe problem: Wyatt's poems have no dates, so inference is the historian's closest companion. But Shulman, confronting her daunting task with aplomb and sensitivity, shows us how Wyatt's lyrics, subtle and layered, can refer to a deer or a woman, a hunt or a courtship. She also examines the courtly love tradition, the influence and status of Chaucer, the psychology of the king and the tangled history of the English Reformation. Readers of Hilary Mantel's two novels about Thomas Cromwell will enjoy seeing him in a different context (and--spoiler alert--will learn his fate). Shulman also reveals her own considerable lyrical chops: On Anne Boleyn: "With her wit, her dazzle, her ludic, punning Burgundian manners, she melted into his [Henry's] dream of Albion." A gracefully written, thoroughly researched story of an agile and articulate survivor.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Tudor mania, such as we are now experiencing thanks chiefly to Hilary Mantel, has swept the English-speaking world at intervals ever since 1485, when Richard III took up his tenancy under a future parking lot and Henry VII ascended the throne. I have suffered from this condition almost nonstop since I was ten, first drawn to stories of political beheadings and religious persecution, practices at which the Tudors excelled. For years, in the zealot's chilly way, I found it disappointing that the poet Thomas Wyatt, rumored to have been a lover of Anne Boleyn and twice imprisoned in the Tower of London, managed to die of natural causes. (That his son was later beheaded by the Tudor we rejoiced in calling Bloody Mary was some consolation.) As it happens, this wily and ingenious court poet is receiving new notice, having recently been honored with a substantial new biography, Thomas Wyatt: The Heart's Forest by Susan Brigden, published in Britain. He and his poetry are also the subject of Nicola Shulman's penetrating and witty Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt - - Poet, Lover, Statesman, and Spy in the Court of Henry VIII. Thomas Wyatt (1503–42) was the son of Henry Wyatt, a man imprisoned and tortured for his loyalty to the future Henry VII and later richly rewarded for his steadfastness. Thomas, handsome, charming, and clever, was groomed for the role of diplomat and courtier. To this end he was well educated and sent abroad, becoming proficient in Latin, French, and Italian, as well as the language of chivalry and courtly love, both essential to life in the court of Henry VIII. There, social intercourse was governed by chivalric rituals and codes in emulation of the more sophisticated courts of Continental rulers. Fashion aside, the politically canny Tudors embraced the pomp, poses, and pastimes of chivalry for practical and ideological ends. Its putatively ancient forms lent their brand-new — that is to say, usurping — regime a patina of antiquity and semblance of continuity by promoting their family's link to King Arthur, whose descendants they insisted they were.

Wyatt was popular at court and served as one of Henry's attending gentlemen. He also wrote poems. None of them was ever published during his lifetime, and, in fact, their dissemination was, as Shulman notes, purposely a private matter. He left them in telling spots, slipped them to friends who, in turn, passed them on to others whose knowing eyes picked out their latent meanings. The verses were recycled too, passed about later, the words intact, but the sense now altered by changed circumstances.

Couched in the language of courtly love, Wyatt's poems were both works of art and political devices. Seen as art, they were unusual for the time: Not only did many take the sonnet form, which Wyatt introduced from the Continent, but they were in English, a language that prevailing humanistic opinion held to be only "a shaggy and hopalong means of expression." In fact, as Shulman observes, "the idea of English as a language of love would have struck most French or Italians as highly comic." For Wyatt, however, English words "were window panes," and when used with discrimination their sense was bright and clear, demonstrating the simple power of English to convey matters of the heart. Indeed, Shulman notices an interiority in them that she ascribes to a Protestant sensibility. Members of the highly mannered and artificial court were thrilled by poetry whose author "sounded as if he meant it." As such, Shulman says, Wyatt "raised the stakes of the courtly game?. Poet-as-lover and lover-as-poet melt into one; a poet can mean it or not mean it, a recipient can take the suit as earnest or a game, with the result that the sincerity of the verse itself becomes a central theme."

Wyatt's poems as political devices also shimmered with elusive meaning and ambiguous sincerity. They were ostensibly love poems but slid open, as Shulman shows again and again, to reveal subtle and potent messages to cognoscenti. Artful instruments of influence and power — or, put another way, paragons of spin — they were employed to further both personal and momentous causes. On the personal front there is the matter of Wyatt's relationship with Anne Boleyn, a vexed subject that Shulman examines in detail. Whatever its nature — and I leave Shulman's conclusions for you to discover — it was generally known that Wyatt had been involved with Anne in some degree. Thus, when the king's interest in her became manifest, the poet had the extremely delicate task of showing that he was not a suitor, that he deferred to the king. In arguments too carefully laid out to summarize, Shulman shows how, through poetry, Wyatt pulled off "damage- limitation and image-management."

Anne, a shrewd operator in her own right and adept in shaping the narrative to suit her own purposes, enlisted Wyatt ("master of grievance, reproach, disappointment and unrequited desire") in her campaign to become Henry's wife. The strategy involved fending the king off until her marriage to him was secure, but doing so without terminally alienating him. Thus Wyatt's poems that touched on the subject, however obliquely, situated frustrated desire in the framework of courtly love ("the domestic arm of chivalry," as Shulman nicely puts it) in which the suitor's role of lovelorn petitioner has no suggestion of lost dignity or inadequacy.

Wyatt's famous poem, from which Shulman takes her book's title, is usually considered to have been written during Henry's courtship of Anne and to constitute poetic assurance that Wyatt was not in the running for Anne's favor. In a startling (to me, at least) revision, Shulman suggests something much more. In it, the part of a deer (hind) can still be seen as Anne and the narrative voice, that of the poet who has prudently taken himself out of the chase because Caesar/Henry VIII has exerted his claim:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, helas, I may no more.
[?]
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere for Caesar's I am
And wild for to hold though I seem tame.
But Shulman goes deeper into the matter, arguing (and showing) that the sonnet conflates sex, religion, and power politics and is, in fact, "an important piece of reformation literature." Briefly put, through a deft and convincing analysis, both hers and that of other scholars, she moves the date of the sonnet's composition from 1526–27 (the time of Henry's courtship of Anne) to 1533, by which time the couple were married and the split from Rome had been accomplished. The legitimacy of this split had been bolstered by the myth that the ancient Britons had descended from Brutus, whose own ancestors were involved in the founding of Rome. Thus, it was usefully reasoned — and brazenly inserted by Thomas Cromwell into the Act of Restraint of Appeals (1533) — that Britain, far from being subservient to Rome, was an equal imperial power. With this in mind, and given that, as the Bible adjures, we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, Henry as Caesar becomes a politically and religiously weighty figure of speech, the substance being that "both Anne and her Church were legally bound to Henry."

Graven with Diamonds is not meant to be a life of Thomas Wyatt, though it could certainly serve as a primer and in fact goes into such questions of enduring interest as why, despite his two sojourns in the Tower, this man emerged with his head intact. According to Shulman, the subject of this book is "the life of [Wyatt's] lyric poetry" — why he wrote it and the uses to which it was put. As such, it provides a briskly intelligent, sometimes maverick interpretation of the poet's verse and a revelatory look at the subtle craft of poetry in furthering the birth of the modern state.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586422073
  • Publisher: Steerforth Press
  • Publication date: 2/5/2013
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 980,804
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 18, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    I originally was excited by this title, for I am a bit of a Tudo

    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. 

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 19, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting but dry

    Interesting but very dry!

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