Thomas Wyatt: The Heart's Forest

Cathy Shrank extols an insight into the life of a poet who watched his words in Henry VIII's court

January 10, 2013

Wyatt is best found in translation, in the high and creative art of imitation," Susan Brigden pertinently observes. It is there, between the interstices of the texts, that we can see Wyatt the poet at work, making small but significant changes. Brigden wonderfully describes this process as "poetic alchemy" and traces, for example, how Wyatt transforms Petrarch's rhyming pair "core/fore" (heart/outside) into the striking image of the "hertes forrest". The forest to which Wyatt's lover flees, however, is no sanctuary but a place of danger: the preserve of kings and the haunt of outlaws. Brigden's analysis of this translation epitomises the paradoxes and ambivalences explored in this magnificent biography.

Thomas Wyatt lived during the reign of Henry VIII, sometimes (dangerously) close to the circles of power at court, at other times exiled from them, at home on his Kent estates, or enduring the often uncomfortable and perilous life of an ambassador, dependent on the goodwill of the foreign dignitaries with whom he was required to bargain and posture, and on whom he was required to spy. Favour in Henrician England was notoriously fickle: a "Slipper toppe" that Wyatt himself lamented in a translation from Seneca (another poet-statesman who lived in hazardous times). It was a world in which it was wise to guard your words, and Brigden's study captures the compelling dynamic in Wyatt's work between revelation and obfuscation: a plain-speaking poet - and man - who appears to lay himself bare but tells you little. "It may be good like it who list," writes Wyatt, in unadorned Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. But what is "it"? The rhetorical tour de force of his Defence, produced in 1541 when he was incarcerated in the Tower of London for the second, almost fatal, time, is similarly evasive. A seeming declaration of his religious faith is hedged with self-reflexivity: "I thynke I shulde have more a doe with a great sorte in Inglande to purge my selffe of suspecte of a lutherane than of a papyst."

As Brigden stalks her elusive subject through the archives, she performs a remarkable piece of detective work, fitting together a jigsaw, the pieces of which are scattered across different depositories, in different languages and different countries. In the process, she convincingly scotches many myths. Wyatt has long been known in popular imagination (rightly or wrongly) as Anne Boleyn's lover, penning plaintive reactions to her rejection of him and sharing her evangelical commitments. Brigden challenges and complicates this view, revealing him to have been, at least initially, affiliated with the party loyal to Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first queen. She also reconstructs a much more nuanced portrait of Wyatt's religious allegiances: a man who disliked papal power and its abuses, and shared anti-clerical jokes with his friend and protector Thomas Cromwell, but who was far from the proto-Protestant that many would hold him to be.

Wyatt - on these pages as in his life - proves as various as the spellings of his name ("Wyot", "Tho", "Viatus", "Mr Huet"). Admirably, Brigden does not attempt to make one cohesive Wyatt out of his many manifestations. Sixteenth-century notions of identity centred on social selves: identities constructed for, and by, the company you were keeping. Brigden gives us Wyatt in all his apparent inconsistencies: among serious-minded Stoicists; at court, composing pungent verses of disappointed love; on the London streets among swaggering gallants and reckless gamblers; a moralist; an adulterer with a failed marriage, a mistress and a bastard son; a man who longed for "quyete of mynde" and yet "could never rest". She allows him to speak and to keep his silence.

Thomas Wyatt: The Heart's Forest

By Susan Brigden
Faber & Faber, 728pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780571235841
Published 20 September 2012

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