Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by John Churton Collins
Sir Thomas Wyatt (15031542)
[Thomas Wyatt, the eldest son of Sir Henry Wyatt, a baronet of ancient family, was born at Allington Castle, in Kent, in 1503. In the Court of Henry VIII he soon became a conspicuous figure, famous for his wit, his learning, his poetical talents, his linguistic attainments, his skill in athletic exercises, his fascinating manners and his handsome person. From a courtier he developed into a statesman and a diplomatist, and in the duties incident to statesmanship and diplomacy most of his life was passed. He died at Sherborne, while on his road to Falmouth, and was buried there October 11th, 1542. His poems were first printed in Tottels Miscellany in 1557.]
WYATT and Surrey are usually classed togetherpar nobile fratrumthe Dioscuri of the Dawn. They inaugurated that important period in our literature known as the Era of Italian Influence, or that of the Company of Courtly Makersthe period which immediately preceded and ushered in the age of Spenser and Shakespeare. With some of the characteristics of expiring mediævalism still lingering about them, the prevailing spirit of their poetry is the spirit of the Renaissance,not its colour, not its exuberance, not its intoxication; but its classicism, its harmony, and its appreciation of form. With the writings of Virgil, Martial and Seneca, in ancient, and with the writings of Petrarch and his school in modern times, they were evidently familiar, and they have as evidently made them their models. The influence of that school is indeed manifest in almost everything these poets have left us, sometimes directly in translations, in professed imitation, in turns of expression, still oftener indirectly in tone, form and style: but they owed more to the Italy of the fourteenth than to the Italy of the first century. To Wyatt and Surrey our debt is a great one. They introduced and naturalised the Sonnet, both the Sonnet of the true Petrarchian type and the Sonnet which was afterwards carried to such perfection in the hands of Shakespeare and Daniel. In Surrey we find the first germ of the Bucolic Eclogue. In Wyatt we have our first classical satirist. Of our lyrical poetry they were the founders. Their tone, their style, their rhythm, their measures, were at once adopted by a school of disciples, and have ever since maintained their popularity among poets. In their lyrics indeed is to be found the seed of everything that is most charming in the form of Jonson and Herrick, of Waller and Suckling, of Cowley and Prior. They gave usbut this is the glory of Surrey alonethe first specimens of blank verse that our language can boast. They were the creators of that majestic measure the heroic quatrain. They enriched diction with fulness and involution. They were the first of our poets who had learned the great secret of transfusing the spirit of one language into that of another, who had the good taste to select the best models and the good sense to adhere to them. They gave the deathblow to that rudeness, that grotesqueness, that prolixity, that diffuseness, that pedantry, which had deformed with fatal persistency the poetry of mediævalism, and while they purified our language from the Gallicisms of Chaucer and his followers, they fixed the permanent standard of our versification. To them we are indebted for the great reform which substituted a metrical for a rhythmical structure. Their services to our literature may at once be realised by comparing their work with that of their immediate predecessors, and by observing its influence on the writers in the four Miscellanies which appeared between 1557 and the publication of Englands Helicon in 1600. Indeed these interesting men stand in much the same relation to the poetical literature of England as Boscan and Garcilaso de la Vega stand to the poetical literature of Castile.
It is unfortunately not possible to decide how far these two poets acted and re-acted on each other. We are however inclined to think that Wyatt was the master-spirit, and that Surrey has been enabled to throw him so completely and so unfairly into the shade, mainly because he had his friends patterns to work upon. Wyatt was his senior by at least fourteen years, and Wyatts poems, if we except at least the Satires and the Penitential Psalms, were in all probability early works.
The poems of Wyatt consist of Sonnets, Lyrics in all varieties of measure, Rondeaux, Epigrams, Satires, and a poetical paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms. His genius is essentially imitative. His Sonnets are either direct translations or servile imitations of Petrarchs. Of his lyrics some are borrowed from the Spanish, some from the French, some from the Italian; all, with the exception of half a dozen perhaps, are more or less modelled on writings in those languages. What we call his Epigrams are for the most part versions from the Strambotti of Serafino d Aquila. One of his Satires is an abridged imitation of the Tenth Satire of Alamanni, the other two were respectively suggested by Horace and Persius. Even in his version of the Penitential Psalms he was careful to follow in the footsteps of Dante and Alamanni. The dignity and gravity which characterise the structure of some of his lyric periods appear to have been caught from the poets of Castile. His general tone is sombre, sententious and serious, and he is too often reflecting when he ought to be feeling. The greater part of his poetry is wasted in describing with weary minuteness transports of slighted and requited affection, but his true place is among observant men of the world, scholars and moralists. His versification is often harsh and uncouth, except in some of his lyrics, which are occasionally very musical, and in his Satires, which are uniformly terse and smooth. He is inferior to Surrey in diction, in taste, in originality, and in poetical feeling; but it may be doubted whether the more delicate genius of the younger poet would have been able to achieve so complete a triumph over the mechanism of expression had he not been preceded by his robuster brother.