Hawking, Edwin Henry Landseer. 1832
Lucks, My Fair Falcon
Lucks, my fair falcon, and your fellows all,
How well pleasant it were your liberty!
Ye not forsake me that fair might ye befall.
But they that sometime liked my company:
Like lice away from dead bodies they crawl.
Lo what a proof in light adversity!
But ye my birds, I swear by all your bells,
Ye be my friends, and so be but few else.
This poem starts by praising birds, then disparages people, then goes back to the birds. So let’s follow suit and start with those falcons.
Thomas Wyatt, 1540-41
Notes: “ye not forsake me that fair might me befall” means, you don’t forsake me in order that fair things might happen to you.
Falconry was one of the regular pursuits of noblemen in the sixteenth century, and most young noblemen would have at least one bird of prey they took hawking (the word ‘hawk’ then referred to a male bird, and ‘falcon’ female), often that they had trained themselves. Bands of men – and women too – would take their birds out to chase down grouse, rabbits and other prey. In a sense, then, Wyatt’s falcon would have been than a pet, but, a companion and a kind of team-mate – emotionally speaking, their relationship would have been closer to that of man and horse, than say a budgie kept in a cage.
The ‘loyalty’ that Wyatt lauds in falcons is of course strictly conditioned. The birds are trained to be dependent on their owners, and that is why, when they are let go – given their temporary ‘liberty’, they always come back. Still, who’s to say that the birds don’t also have a genuine emotional attachment to their owners, as I believe (and other, more strictly rationalistic, types don’t believe) many animals have? The opening and closing lines of the poem really are a kind of encomium to falcons and their qualities, they aren’t just there to draw a comparison with humans, who lack those same qualities. But that is the main reason they’re there…
Wyatt wrote this poem during a spell in prison, after he had been caught up in the downfall of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn, whom he had courted when they were both younger. The affair had, it seems, come to nothing, but Wyatt’s name came up when the king’s right hand man, Thomas Cromwell, was investigating – or more likely fabricating – scurrilous rumours about the young queen’s conduct. Wyatt was thrown in the tower, and watched several others and then Anne herself being executed from his cell window. He was eventually acquitted of the charges, but the experience was bitter. Not only, as we can see, for the fear and dread it inspired, but the loss of social prestige – and of fair weather friends – that accompanied his fall.
The whole affair was bad for Wyatt, but much worse for the queen and her supposed lovers; and it may have been good for poetry. Wyatt is a great poet, but an awful lot of his poems are on the subject of love, and the sufferings of a dedicated lover, in the Petrarchan style. It can get a bit tiresome, especially for those of us whose courting days are long behind us. Reading through his poems, this stands out as one of the most distinctive and most arresting. After the soaring appreciation of falcons, we are brought down to earth with a most disparaging description of Wyatt’s one time friends. The lice simile is at once superbly contemptuous of those who he feels to have abandoned him, but also creepily morbid. I imagine that lice were omnipresent in prisons in the sixteenth century, so perhaps when he wrote the poem he was uncomfortably well-acquainted with them. Omnipresent too, and implicit in the same image, must have been the thought of his own death.