Renaissance and Reformation Thomas Wyatt
by
Jason Powell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0511

Introduction

Thomas Wyatt (b. 1504?–d. 1542) almost certainly wrote the first sonnet in English. His Penitential Psalm paraphrase inaugurated a fashion for psalm translation, he introduced ottava rima to the English language, and he may have invented poulter’s measure—a form now often derided by critics, but deeply popular in Wyatt’s own century. His Quyete of Mynde (1529) became the first classical moral essay published in English. His diplomatic letters from the court of Charles V from 1537 to 1540 experiment with narrative form, and his letters of advice to his son reveal a deep interest in the Stoic thought of Seneca and Epictetus. Yet Wyatt was above all a royal servant—sometimes to the wrong royal, if he remained devoted, as Brigden 2012 (cited under Book-Length Studies) suggests, to Katherine of Aragon as late as 1529, well beyond the point of political expediency. Thomas Cromwell’s patronage appears to have restored him to Henry VIII’s favor, despite imprisonment with the accused lovers of Anne Boleyn in 1536 and another imprisonment in 1541. He died on 11 October 1542 after developing a fever while riding to greet the imperial ambassador at Falmouth. This article complements the excellent separate Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature article “Thomas Wyatt,” and should be consulted alongside of it where possible.

Wyatt Editions

As seen by the wide variety of editions and even manuscripts used in recent scholarship, no single, published edition currently suffices for scholarship. Powell 2016 consolidated Wyatt’s prose within one accurate and well-annotated scholarly edition; a second volume of verse is forthcoming. Concerns with current editions of the poetry include not only the canon—which poems Wyatt actually wrote—a question vigorously contested from the 1970s, and which remains so today, but also the preferred text of poems circulated in manuscript and even the basic meaning of some less well-known poems assumed to be Wyatt’s. The original spelling edition Muir and Thomson 1969 is useful but deeply marred by transcription errors and gaps in its annotations, and it introduces many poems into the Wyatt canon that have no realistic claim to be Wyatt’s. Readers may nevertheless determine a narrow, if secure, canon by assuming poems in that edition that are from the Egerton manuscript, are clearly ascribed in Devonshire, or are ascribed to Wyatt in the Songes and Sonettes, are his. Caution should be used, particularly in making biographical claims, with all other poems. Daalder 1975 provides an accurate text and judicious annotations for student readers, but does not provide ideal guidance on the canon and does not include all poems probably by Wyatt. Rebholz 1978 is a modern-spelling edition designed for students and the general public. In the absence of a good scholarly edition, it has often been used by scholars for its depth of annotation, but it is flawed in many of its assumptions, in its willingness to emend unnecessarily, and in its categories of authorship, which are deeply unhelpful, to the point of misleading. Despite its flaws, Harrier 1975 remains an essential background to existing editions. Mason 1986 should be used very carefully, if at all, by students; scholars may find it helpful with regard to the small number of specific poems it includes. Baron 1977 edits the penitential psalms, but is most crucial for understanding Wyatt’s manuscripts and sources for the psalms.

  • Baron, Helen V. “Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Penitential Psalms: A Study of Textual and Source Materials.” PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 1977.

    Not publicly available, yet an absolutely indispensable study of the sources and text of Wyatt’s penitential psalm paraphrase. Discovered Cardinal Caietan’s Psalmi Davidici as a source, and narrowed down specific editions of Aretino and Campensis/Zwingli that Wyatt used from variants. It also includes the most accurate and detailed study of the Egerton manuscript to date, correcting some of the errors and misunderstandings in Harrier 1975 and Hughey 1960 (cited under Editions of Related Books or Manuscripts).

  • Daalder, Joost, ed. Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

    Judiciously edited selection of poems, usefully categorized as ascribed or unascribed, and combined with a brief, thoughtful introduction. While it lacks the extensive annotations of Rebholz 1978, and makes some questionable decisions in its selection of poems, this edition’s concise notes are also less likely to mislead readers.

  • Harrier, Richard C., ed. The Canon of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

    Diplomatic edition of British Library MS 2711 that, at its initial publication, dramatically advanced critical understanding of Wyatt’s own manuscript. Harrier’s outline of the canon of Wyatt’s poetry is still the best rough guideline for scholars. Its occasionally flawed delineation of the manuscript’s hands requires correction from Baron 1977 and subsequent sources. Remains useful for scholars given the continued absence of an acceptable scholarly edition of Wyatt’s poetry.

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

    Deeply idiosyncratic, modern-spelling edition of twenty-four Wyatt poems—Mason’s belated attempt to demonstrate his opinion of how a Wyatt edition should be done. Texts are heavily emended and unaccompanied by line numbers, making annotations hard to negotiate. Rarely distinguishes between sources and parallels, or trims unnecessary observations from the commentary. Nevertheless, the annotations are deeply learned, containing occasional gems that still have not penetrated critical consciousness.

  • Muir, Kenneth, and Patricia Thomson, eds. Collected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1969.

    Admirable in its ambitions, but marred by textual errors, silent emendations, inaccuracies in its treatment of Wyatt’s sources, and its often-uncritical inclusion of poems (many from the ‘Blage’ MS that Muir discovered) that have no real claim to be Wyatt’s. The attacks on it in Mason 1972 (cited under Book-Length Studies) were in some respects exaggerated, but nevertheless rightly exposed inaccurate texts and problems in its treatment of the canon.

  • Powell, Jason, ed. The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder. Vol. 1, Prose. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Scholarly edition of Wyatt’s diplomatic letters, Declaration and Defence, Quyete of Mynde, and letters of advice to his son, with related documents. Each set of works is separately introduced. Diplomatic letters are contextualized within narrative headnotes. Includes sixty-four biographies of figures in Wyatt’s diplomacy, including all known members of his diplomatic household. The recipient of one letter is identified for the first time. Sometimes buries important details in footnotes.

  • Rebholz, Ronald A., ed. The Complete Poems, Sir Thomas Wyatt. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1978.

    Chatty and speculative, this widely used modern-spelling edition retains its prominence due to ample annotations and the absence of a good scholarly edition. Influenced by H. A. Mason, Rebholz emends the text wherever it seems unclear, and incautiously attributes “Protestant” beliefs to ambiguous passages in the psalms. Categories of authorship by date of attribution provide misleading guidance to scholars. The introduction contains a valuable study of Wyatt’s prosody.

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