Graven with Diamonds

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. Justly acclaimed in Britain, it now appears here.

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 which 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.