Poet's Pick April 17
Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder:
"Whoso List to Hunt"

Selected by Sarah Kennedy
National Poetry Month 2017

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Sarah Kennedy's Poetry Month Pick, April 17, 2017

"Whoso List to Hunt"
by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder (1503-1542)

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I, by no means, my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore,
Fainting I follow.  I leave off, therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
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.”


* Sarah Kennedy Comments:
Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder was one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, and in the course of his diplomatic ventures on the continent, he encountered the poetry of Petrarch, the fourteenth-century Italian sonneteer.  Wyatt was certainly not a writer, in the modern sense of the term—nobody really was before Ben Jonson—but he cultivated the skill of verse-making, as many men and women of accomplishment did during the Tudor years.  He never sought publication for himself; a gentleman, or lady, only circulated poems in manuscript among friends and lovers.  But by the 1520s, most of the poetry being written in England was political satire and long verse narrative.  The country—and the language—were ripe for a change.

Petrarch was not unknown—in fact he was wildly popular on the continent—but it was Wyatt who translated his work in such volume and with such dexterity that he revolutionized poetry in England.  “Whoso List to Hunt,” a translation of Petrarch’s Rima 190, is an essential part of that transformation.  It’s a love poem, a complaint poem, and a political satire, all in the compressed fourteen lines of the sonnet.  Rumored to refer to an affair with Anne Boleyn, the sonnet uses a much-loved Tudor pun, “deer” equals “dear,” to describe his disappointment in the doomed pursuit.

The controlling metaphor, the “deer hunt” as quest for love, is only broken at one point, when, in despair, the speaker vows to “leave off,” since he is trying to “hold the wind” in a “net” (which suggests another embedded metaphor—that the wind is a flight of butterflies).  There is a turn (or “volta”), however, at the expected spot between the octave and the sestet, where the speaker repeats the opening phrase, then goes on to describe the collar that this “hind” wears.  The story behind these lines is that Julius Caesar marked his personal deer with collars stamped “noli me tangere quia Caesaris sum” or “Don’t think about touching me because I’m Caesar’s.”  In the poem, the deer is wearing a collar studded with diamonds that spell out the same message.

Now who, in Tudor England, would be wealthy enough to have such a deer?  The king, of course.  Extrapolation is not difficult: the deer is Anne Boleyn, and no one is allowed to touch her because she “belongs” to Henry.  The poem, though, does not leave the metaphor there.  It goes on to assign an element of complicity on the part of the deer/dear.  She seems to be saying of herself that she is “wild for to hold, though [she] seem[s] tame.”  But does this refer to her relationship with Thomas Wyatt and her rejection of him or to her refusal to submit fully to Henry (remember, she was accused of adultery—tantamount to treason—and was beheaded for it)?  Either way, the poem also subtly interrogates the power of the monarchy, even as it provides, through being a “translation,” its own escape route.

The historical facts of the poem, whatever they might have been, died with Anne and Thomas Wyatt.  What remains is this hauntingly complex and beautiful poem, which captures the danger and intrigue of the court, as well as helping to inaugurate the sonnet form in the British Isles.  I don’t believe it is an overstatement to credit Wyatt with a sea-change in the lyric poetry of his era, a shift that continues to mark the short poem in the English language.

Sarah Kennedy:
Sarah Kennedy is the author of the novels Self-Portrait, with Ghost and The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, and The King’s Sisters, Books One, Two, and Three of The Cross and the Crown series, set in Tudor England.  She has also published seven books of poems.  A professor of English, Sarah Kennedy holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.  She has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.  Please visit Sarah at her website:  http://sarahkennedybooks.com

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