Sir Thomas Wyatt
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 24 September 1542) was a 16th-century English lyrical poet who is best known as the individual whom scholars credit with introducing the sonnet into English. He was born austrai at Allington Castle, near Maidstone in Kent – though his family was originally from Yorkshire. His father, Henry Wyatt, had been one of Henry VII’s Privy Councillors, and remained a trusted adviser when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509. In his turn, Thomas Wyatt followed his father to court after his education at St John’s College, Cambridge.
Education and Diplomatic Career
Wyatt was over six feet tall, reportedly both handsome and physically strong. By all accounts, Wyatt was not only a brilliant poet, but also a astute diplomat. Wyatt was a poet and Ambassador in the service of Henry VIII. He first entered Henry’s service in 1516 as ‘Sewer Extraordinary’, and the same year he began studying at St John’s College of the University of Cambridge. He married Elizabeth Brooke (1503 – 1560), the sister of George Brooke, 9th Baron Cobham, in 1521, and a year later she gave birth to a son, Thomas Wyatt, the younger, who led Wyatt’s rebellion many years after his father’s death. (This rebellion, aimed at putting Elizabeth Tudor on the English throne while her sister Mary I reigned, resulted in the younger Wyatt’s imprisonment and execution and put Elizabeth herself under heavy suspicion, although she rigorously denied any participation in that rebellion.) In 1524 Henry VIII assigned Wyatt to be an Ambassador at home and abroad, and some time soon after he separated from his wife on the grounds of adultery.
He accompanied Sir John Russell to Rome to help petition Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage of Henry VIII to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, an embassy whose goal was to make Henry free to marry Anne Boleyn. According to some, Wyatt was captured by the armies of Emperor Charles V when they captured Rome and imprisoned the Pope in 1527 but managed to escape and then made it back to England. In 1535 Wyatt was knighted.
Modern scholars credit Wyatt with introducing the sonnet into English poetry–an event of great artistic moment for English poetry. Although a significant amount of his literary output consists of translations of sonnets by the Italian poet Petrarch, he wrote others of his own. Wyatt’s sonnets first appeared in Tottle’s Miscellany, now on exhibit in the British Library in London. In addition to imitations of works by the classical writers Seneca and Horace, he experimented with other poetic forms such as the rondeau, and wrote epigrams, songs and satires and introduced contemporaries to his poulter’s measure form (couplets of twelve syllable iambic lines alternating with a fourteen syllable line). While Wyatt’s poetry reflects classical and Italian models, he also admired the work of Chaucer and his vocabulary reflects Chaucer’s (for example, his use of Chaucer’s word newfangleness, meaning fickle, in They flee from me that sometime did me seek). His best-known poems are those that deal with the trials of romantic love. Others of his poems were scathing, satirical indictments of the hypocrisies and flat-out pandering required of courtiers ambitious to advance at the Tudor court. There is a case to be made for Wyatt’s having been essential in making English a language worthy for literature, since French had been the court tongue and Latin the language of diplomacy until around his time.
Critical opinions of his work have varied widely. For most of his posthumous legacy, he was considered an inferior poet to his contemporary Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The twentieth century saw an awakening in his popularity and a surge in critical attention. C. S. Lewis called him ‘the father of the Drab Age’, though not necessarily in a dismissive sense, while others see his love poetry, with its complex use of literary conceits, as anticipating that of the metaphysical poets in the next century. As the individual who introduced the sonnet into English, Wyatt remains a pivotal figure in Early Modern literature.