The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt!

Our book today is The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt: A Selection and a Study, which was given a limited printing back in 1929 by a Cambridge don with the inimitable (one hopes) name of Eustace Mandeville Wetenhall Tillyard. The don was the author of a shelf of books only one of which, The Elizabethan World Picture, enjoyed any kind of survival, indoctrinating generations of young people into a soup-to-nuts conceptualization of the Elizabethans that was outdated even before its ink was dry. You’ll still find the occasional 1960s paperback edition of The Elizabethan World Picture at church sales and library jumbles, and it’s still worth your time if you do (currency being hardly the point of scholarship, after all). You’re unlikely to find The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt anywhere except a first-rate very busy used bookshop, the kind that processes boxes and boxes of new acquisitions every week – the kind that clears out attics and studies and basements and church sales and library jumbles at a positively industrial rate. It should be almost needless to say I found my copy at my beloved Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston (where, it has been puckishly but accurately suggested, I myself am likely to be found, with statistically relevant regularity).

The Poetry of Thomas Wyatt often isn’t even mentioned in the full list of E.M.W. Tillyard’s works, possibly because he took 30 minutes to write it and organized the whole thing around a contention as outdated as his zodiac-obsessed Elizabethans: namely, that Thomas Wyatt, Tudor courtier, soldier, jouster, and diplomat par excellence, was a better poet than his young friend and protege the Earl of Surrey. The invocation of a rivalry is natural enough – the two of them together did work a major reformation in English poetry, changing the literary landscape when their Italian- and French-inflected poems appeared in Tottel’s Miscellany in 1557 (now given a pretty modern reprint by – who else? – Penguin Classics), although I doubt anybody today seriously questions Wyatt’s pre-eminence.

Not that the rank-question matters, especially in enjoying the sweet, soft air of Tillyard’s prose; as with most “Selections and Studies” written before the advent of modern academic scholarship, the ‘study’ part – essentially a long Introduction – is the whole reason for the book (typically the ‘selection’ will be from an authoritative edition of the poet’s works made by somebody else, in this case the unjustly forgotten Agnes Foxwell edition of 1911, a volume I can only hope to find one day at the Brattle, Wyatt being something of a favorite of mine). The ‘Study’ here is a 50-page gem, part lecture-hall sweep:

In neither the rondeau, the sonnet, nor the eight-lined epigram was Wyatt really at home: he wrote in these forms as a schoolboy hammers out elegiacs or alcaics. The rondeau, a difficult form, requires an exquisite and artful ease; the English sonnet must be monumental (“A sonnet is a moment’s monument”, sas Rossetti); and the epigram must be both polished and pointed. Wyatt’s rondeaus are anything but exquisite and easy; the intolerable metrical jolt that he inherited from Barclay and Pynson’s Chaucer makes them grotesque and uncouth.

(to which a response might be: Professor, do better)

… and part spirited biography:

What precisely had been the relations of Wyatt and Anne Boleyn is quite uncertain. Scandal, preserved in certain strongly anti-Protestant documents, would have it that Anne was Wyatt’s mistress before she married Henry VIII. The charge may be false, but it cannot be absolutely disproved, as Wyatt’s latest editor would have it.

And along the way, the discussion of the verses (both in the Life and in the end-notes) is so light and fascinating that you feel like you’re sitting in a book-lined study in Jesus College, listening to all this offhand brilliance while the evening mist gathers outside the mullioned windows. One of the most striking charms of these old Brattle-treasures is that feeling of opening a dusty volume that looks so old and subfusc and encountering active minds and living passions right there on the page.

Tillyard’s is certainly one such mind, and in this particular volume he’s just the appetizer – the real centerpiece here of course is Wyatt’s mind, and Wyatt’s knotty passions so perfectly expressed in poem after poem. Wyatt knew mostly bitter disappointment in his attempts to find true and loyal love among human beings – disappointment to the extent where he was often tempted to defy Tennyson’s old adage about it being better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all:

From these high hills as when a spring doth fall,

It trilleth down with still and subtle course;

Of this and that it gathers aye and shall,

Till it have just off flowed the stream and force;

Then at the foot it rageth over all:

So fareth love when he had ta’en a source;

His rein is rage, resistance ‘vaileth none;

The first eschew is remedy alone.

Despite seeing clearly the bitter value of ‘the first eschew,’ Wyatt continued to give himself up to that rude stream all through his life. And Professor Tillyard was moved by that passion four centuries later and wrote a quick book about it, mostly for the edification of his students and friends. And almost a century after that, his book beguiled an hour of my evening in a city he never visited (and that Wyatt never dreamed of). That’s my oft-proclaimed “magic of the Brattle” for you.

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