Sir Thomas Wyatt: Emo Sonneteer

There’s a time and a place for everything. Even for emo music, and that’s called high school. While I was never one for the level of sissypants sensitivity reached by Hawthorne Heights or Dashboard Confessional, I did have a special affinity for the works of Sir Thomas Wyatt, England’s first famous sonnet writer, which you’ll see counts for something.

My love to scorn, my service to retain,

Therein, methought, you used cruelty;

Since with good will I lost my liberty,

To follow her which causeth all my pain.

Boys and girls, this man couldn’t be more emo if he were dying his hair pink and weeping into his Nightmare Before Christmas hoodie. But he was Thomas Wyatt, the pioneer of the English sonnet, and I loved his stuff.

If you’ve read Wolf Hall, you recognize Wyatt as a peripheral figure who nonetheless led a very interesting life. In the 1530s he was one of those English who traveled abroad to Italy and brought back serious change to British Isles. Whereas Thomas Cromwell returned with Machiavelli’s playbook, Wyatt came back with Petrarch’s poetry.

Imagine if the object of your versified infatuation was none other than Anne Boleyn, who was going out with Henry VIII, the starting varsity quarterback who could have you hanged and disemboweled. But our boy Wyatt actually had some how-do-you-do with Anne before she married Henry. Like a bunch of other fellows, he was eventually incarcerated in the Tower of London on suspicion of boinking her. Fortunately, Thomas Cromwell, who was his godfather and in some ways more powerful than the king, pulled strings to get him pardoned. Not before, however, he would look out his cell window to witness the executions of the other accused adulterers–and Anne Boleyn, herself.

As far as his sonnet skill was concerned, Wyatt was quickly and vastly outdone by the likes of Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and of course Shakespeare. Many of his works are more or less mere translations of Petrarch’s. You’ll notice they’re also mostly uniform in their unrequited-lover navel gazing. It’s a romantic angst one outgrows yet looks back on with some reverence, as I imagine girls eventually do with Sylvia Plath’s bitterness.

I look back on “My Galley charged with forgetfulness” and discover a woe-is-me conceit that must have seemed hackneyed even by the sixteenth century. You could probably say the same for “Whoso list to hunt,” a poem made much more interesting, though, because its supposed references to Anne Boleyn are more memorable (she is the hart with a diamond-studded collar spelling out “noli me tangere“).

My favorite Wyatt poem is, without a doubt, “They flee from me.” I still find even the phrases haunting (“Dear heart, how like you this”), let alone the images.

Do you have any writers whom, while you no longer recognize them as being all that great, you still enjoy because they irresistibly resonated with you at one time? This one of mine in part fulfilled that teenage romantic-angsty need that otherwise would have led me to wearing white belts with skinny jeans and gluing my bangs. And I’m glad because that sure was close.

But if you hate emo, do what I do and blame Petrarch.

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2 thoughts on “Sir Thomas Wyatt: Emo Sonneteer

  1. I never enjoyed history lessons. But I thought your post was hilarious – I could def. take history lessons from you.

    Everyone thinks of Shakespeare when it comes to sonnets. I’m not a big fan of them myself. The only poet I used to read (and I still think is great) is William Blake. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of his work.

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