British and Irish Literature Thomas Wyatt
by
Chris Stamatakis
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0041

Introduction

From the time of the elegies written at his death canonizing him as the foremost poet in English, Thomas Wyatt (b. c. 1504–d. 1542) has enjoyed a reputation as a pioneering figure in vernacular poetry. Credited with nativizing in-vogue Italian models and introducing new verse forms to English literary culture—including the sonnet, strambotto, and terza rima— Wyatt continues to provoke critical fascination. Interest in his poetry has no doubt been enriched by his scintillating biography: immersion in the royal household as courtier and in foreign courts as ambassador; imprisonment in the Tower (once perhaps as Anne Boleyn’s suspected lover, a second time on charges of treason); and implication in shifting partisan allegiances. Readers often speculate about the autobiographical authenticity of the speaking “I” in his poems, which may be no more than a borrowed literary persona, in keeping with the ambassador’s performed roles and ventriloquized scripts. Even intimate, seemingly confessional poems deny conclusive readings due to their tonal ambiguities and dislocated references. Wyatt’s short lyrics, for which he is perhaps most famous, are typically indeterminate, articulating experiences of deception and inertia that are simultaneously amorous and political in reference. Critics and editors have had to grapple with the peculiar transmission history of Wyatt’s writings, which have compounded these interpretative challenges: before their posthumous printing, Wyatt’s poems circulated, often anonymously, in manuscript form, sometimes in variant manuscript forms, such that attempts to delineate a Wyatt “canon” remain vexed and contested. However defined, Wyatt’s poetic corpus is marked by versatility in a range of genres—secular lyrics, sardonic satires, and introspective psalm paraphrases, not to mention the prose genres of Plutarchian essay, diplomatic and paternal letters, and forensic apologias. To some extent, all critical assessments have engaged with Wyatt’s technical brilliance, his formal and metrical experimentation, and the densely allusive, suggestive nature of his verse, which rewards close study since its ambiguities typically proffer a range of compelling readings and imbricated nuances without privileging any single one. Wyatt has proven hard to pin down in his poems, and still harder to pin down in literary history, as a poet writing either at the end of a late-medieval native tradition, or at the forefront of an early modern enterprise of imitating Petrarch and the unstable Petrarchan self. Critical fascination with Wyatt’s chameleon-like writing, and life, and what he called the “unquiet mind” behind them both, looks set to continue undiminished.

General Overviews

Scholarly interest in Wyatt has grown markedly since the 1980s, fuelled in large part by Greenblatt’s landmark chapter on Wyatt in his seminal and still contentious study of early modern selfhood and identity (Greenblatt 1980). To date, there have been, surprisingly, no edited collections of essays on Wyatt, and criticism has been restricted to monographs or chapters in more general accounts of 16th-century lyric or Tudor literary culture. Since Wyatt’s biography was one immersed in the world of the Henrician court, most of these books and chapters have endeavored to place him squarely in the historical, political, religious, and literary contexts of the early 16th century. Thomson 1964 offers an accessible and readable survey of Wyatt’s works in relation to the literary sources, genres, and models that underpin them, as does Mason 1986, a critical monograph that also serves as an annotated edition of selected writings by Wyatt. Greenblatt 1980 presented a Wyatt entrapped by the dominant political and cultural frameworks in operation at the Tudor court, an approach adopted and developed by Foley 1990, which remains a handy general overview of Wyatt’s oeuvre. Heale 1998 responded to Greenblatt’s chapter and its new historicist legacy by devoting careful attention to literary sources and, like Thomson, by paying detailed attention to Wyatt’s strambotti and his literary indebtedness to Serafino as well as Petrarch. Heale 2010 (in an extension of Heale 1998) reconstructs the biographical, courtly, and social contexts through which to read Wyatt’s poetry, alongside the poems of his contemporaries (such as Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey) and his acolytes. A succinct, syncretic summary of Wyatt’s characteristic literary maneuvers and the critical approaches that have gained purchase in the most recent studies is offered in Greene 2011.

  • Foley, Stephen M. Sir Thomas Wyatt. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    Accessible and rewarding monograph, adopting a new historicist and materialist approach. Reads Wyatt’s writings in terms of his immersion in the royal court and international diplomacy. Good introduction to Wyatt’s authorial agency in the Tudor court—an environment threatening to overwhelm, decenter, or fragment the authorial subject.

  • Greenblatt, Stephen. “Power, Sexuality, and Inwardness in Wyatt’s Poetry.” In Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. By Stephen Greenblatt, 115–156. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    Foundational, new historicist study of Wyatt’s “inwardness,” placing him amid the conflicting, constraining codes that shape identity in the Henrician court. A favorite starting-point for students, though arguably overstates Wyatt’s lack of autonomy, reducing him to a submissive pawn in a dominating, hegemonic system of absolute monarchical power.

  • Greene, Roland. “Thomas Wyatt.” In The Cambridge Companion to English Poets. Edited by Claude Rawson, 37–52. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521874342.003E-mail Citation »

    Far-reaching study of Wyatt’s career, venturing a range of instructive frameworks for approaching his oeuvre. Most valuable for its literary appreciation of Wyatt’s stylistic traits, metrical irregularity, and unusual brand of Petrarchism. Deft readings of Wyatt’s handling of contestable terms, ideological ambiguities, and rhetorical tensions.

  • Heale, Elizabeth. Wyatt, Surrey and Early Tudor Poetry. London: Longman, 1998.

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    Extensive, judicious introductory survey of Wyatt’s poetry as courtly performance. Usefully invokes Wyatt’s service in the royal household, and remains conscious of conditions of manuscript circulation. Pays excellent attention to literary sources, poetic models (especially the strambotto and frottola), and rhetorical and proverbial traditions.

  • Heale, Elizabeth. “Sixteenth-Century Poetry: Skelton, Wyatt, and Surrey.” In The Cambridge History of English Poetry. Edited by Michael O’Neill, 115–135. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521883061.009E-mail Citation »

    Succinct but formidable reading of a range of Wyatt’s poetic genres in the context of contemporary poetics and the historical contingencies of the Henrician court. Sensitive eye for Wyatt’s response to literary traditions, conventions of courtly poetry, and inherited poetic genres. An ideal starting point for undergraduate students.

  • Mason, Harold A. Sir Thomas Wyatt, A Literary Portrait: Selected Poems. Bristol, UK: Bristol Classical Press, 1986.

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    Unorthodox hybrid of selected edition and critical introduction, but a work not without its merits. A medley of selected Wyatt verse (modernized), contextually important documents, editorial notes, useful glosses, and interpretative commentary. Aimed at undergraduate audiences, though less than user-friendly in its typography and format, making the reading experience unwelcoming.

  • Thomson, Patricia. Sir Thomas Wyatt and his Background. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.

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    Detailed, hefty overview of the literary and intellectual contexts behind Wyatt’s writing. Section 1 focuses on Wyatt’s life and the Henrician court; Section 2 is on his literary sources and intertextual influences (classical, neoclassical, humanist, native, and Italian). Includes useful appendices on Wyatt’s response to medieval lyric, Italian sonnet theory, and Ariosto.

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