In the Prologue of Graven With Diamonds, Nicola Shulman writes, “… the present book is not intended as a life of Thomas Wyatt but as a life of his lyric poetry… This is a book about the uses of Wyatt’s love poetry: why he wrote.” It’s a fascinating journey & I learnt a lot about the way poetry was written & read at the Court of Henry VIII.
Wyatt is best known for a handful of lyrics said to be about Anne Boleyn. Wyatt’s relationship with Anne has overshadowed the rest of his life & his reputation as a poet. There’s no clear indication of whether they had an affair or not but there were stories that Wyatt tried to warn Henry that Anne wasn’t as chaste as he may have thought she was. Shulman explains that poetry was used as a kind of initiation rite at Court. If you were one of the inner circle, you could understand the allusions to people & current events or scandals. Wyatt’s poetry is obscure partly because he had to be careful how he wrote, especially in later years as Henry grew more paranoid & suspicious of treason. The allusions are now lost in the mists of time & we can’t know if the interpretations scholars have come up with are anywhere near the truth.
… a verse on a folded sheet could be shared, copied, borrowed, circulated, passed from pocket to pocket for a day or two, declaimed with meaningful looks, or quietly muttered into someone’s ear with a knowing pull at their sleeve. Stanzas might be excised, lines taken alone, or pronouns adapted to fit to make a point – but ultimately, meaning derived from inside knowledge.
Several poems, however, do seem to relate to the period of Anne Boleyn’s ascendency & her fall. The famous sonnet, Whoso list to hunt, is based on a sonnet by Petrarch, but Wyatt’s “translation” has changed the meaning of the original poem. Plutarch’s poem is about a poet following a deer (representing Christ) in a forest until the poet falls into the river & the deer vanishes. In Wyatt’s version, the deer (Anne Boleyn) is the property of Caesar, the King, who has staked his claim with a jewelled necklace,
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere for Caesar’s I am
And wild for to hold though I seem tame.
Shulman places this poem in the late 1520s when Henry’s courtship of Anne was at its height. By 1536, Henry & Anne had been married three years. She had failed to give Henry a son. Her only living child was a daughter, Elizabeth. Henry was restless, wondering just how legal his marriage was & looking towards Jane Seymour as his next potential wife & mother of his heir. The plot that brought Anne down is well-known. Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower along with Anne & the other men accused of being her lovers. Wyatt, who many have since thought had really been Anne’s lover, was not tried &, through the influence of his father & Thomas Cromwell, he was released. Another famous poem is thought to recall the sights he witnessed while he was imprisoned in the Tower.It’s thought that he saw the convicted men & maybe Anne herself, as they were led to their executions.
These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did then depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert
Of truth, circa Regna tonat (it thunders around thrones)
The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory or might,
That yet, circa Regna tonat.
After Wyatt’s release from the Tower, he became a diplomat in Cromwell’s service. This could also mean being a spy & a possible assassin. His private life had not been happy. His marriage to Elizabeth Cobham had ended in separation. His relationship with Anne Boleyn, whatever it may have been, ended when the King became involved. His later relationship with Elizabeth Darrell seems to have been happier although his diplomatic travels meant they spent little time together. Wyatt’s facility with languages & his courtly manners made him a good candidate for a diplomatic career.
In the late 1530s, Henry was trying to prevent an alliance between the Emperor Charles whose empire spread from Spain to the Netherlands & Francis I of France, fearing that they would invade England if they could put aside their misgivings about each other long enough to decide to make war on him. Wyatt was sent to Charles’s court to try to dissuade the Emperor from an alliance with Francis. One of Henry’s subjects, Cardinal Reginald Pole, was an energetic promoter of a Franco-Spanish alliance. Pole was a member of the White Rose families, Yorkists who had a claim to the English throne (I read about the Pole family last year in Desmond Seward’s book, The Last White Rose). They had stayed true to Catholicism & the Pope after Henry’s schism with the Pope & Cardinal Pole was a great promoter of anything that could lead to Henry’s downfall & bring England back to Rome.
It soon became obvious that one of Wyatt’s tasks as a diplomat was to arrange Pole’s assassination. He was unsuccessful & it eventually became necessary for him to leave Spain when Charles grew tired of his plotting & threatened him with the Inquisition. Diplomatic immunity wouldn’t be enough to save a Protestant Englishman if he lost Charles’s protection & favour. On his return to England, Wyatt became caught up in the factional fighting between Cromwell & his enemies. Shulman also thinks that Wyatt’s arrest was one of a series of arrests of diplomats who had failed to carry out Henry’s designs – in Wyatt’s case, Pole’s assassination.
He was again imprisoned in the Tower but again he was released, this time on the intervention of Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Although Wyatt had never been a part of the Howard faction at Court (he was a Protestant & allied to Cromwell) Shulman believes that the Duke of Norfolk’s poet son, the Earl of Surrey, who admired & looked up to Wyatt as the greatest poet of the age, may have petitioned the new Queen to ask for his release. Wyatt was pardoned & returned to his estate at Allington. The conditions of his pardon were quite extraordinary. The King made him take back his wife, Elizabeth, who he had left because of her adultery, years before. He was forced to repudiate his mistress, Elizabeth Darrell, & their baby son – yet another misery to plague his unhappy life. He was back in favour at Court but his health had begun to fail &, on a journey to Falmouth to entertain some Spanish dignitaries, he fell ill & died of complications from a fever. He was only 39.
Nicola Shulman has done a wonderful job in this book of explaining Wyatt’s poetry & the way it was written. The obscurity of the references & allusions was necessary at the time but they led to critics disparaging his work as conventional & bland. His relationship with Anne Boleyn has obsessed historians & romancers to the exclusion of everything else & only in recent years has his work been reassessed. Graven With Diamonds is an absorbing account of Wyatt’s life & the dangerous times he lived in.