Category Archives: History

My Darling, My Daisy

1529MartinLutherHolbein's Henry VIIIJohn_Skelton

November 2017 marks the five hundredth anniversary of the event that kicked off the Reformation (I know, it seems like just yesterday), Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. England’s Reformation didn’t get started until a decade and a half later, but nevertheless, I’d like to mark the anniversary by looking at a poem that very tangentially touches on the Reformation in England.

The English Reformation began by fits and starts – Henry VIII, no fan of Luther, broke from the Catholic Church to enable his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, but he always maintained he was an orthodox Catholic, and spent much of the rest of his reign alternately resisting and rowing back, then sometimes allowing the protestant reforms of some of his councillors. What made the reversal of his policy most difficult was the great dissolution of the abbeys, masterminded by Thomas Cromwell, which had transferred the property and the wealth of the religious houses to the crown, who sold  them on to laymen to ease the financial crises of his reign. Having laid hands on such wealth, even the most Catholic of nobles quailed at the thought of a full restoration. The Reformation in England began in an atmosphere of court intrigue and officially sanctioned plunder, not with the sincere theological angst of Luther, Zwingli or Calvin. Thomas Cromwell may have been a sincere protestant, but his actions were inspired as much by greed, spite and ambition as by religious scruples. And the king, while he could convince himself he was acting in accord with his religious conscience, was in truth guided by material and bodily concerns. The course of the English Reformation would be moulded by the wayward character of the Tudor king.

This is what makes John Skelton, surprisingly, a significant figure in the English Reformation. Himself of course, he was no kind of protestant, but an orthodox Catholic priest. He is the first in a long line of English (or Anglo-Irish) ministers who dabbled in secular matters and wrote very good poetry – John Donne, Robert Herrick and Jonathan Swift come to mind also – and whose poetry contained as much, or sometimes a lot more, of the profane than the sacred. Skelton’s poetry was profane in both senses of the word: first, it concerned worldly matters, like the intrigues of court in his Wolsey-baiting ‘Why come ye not to court?’, or the wildlife in his long poem ‘Philip Sparrow’. (As a part-time birdwatcher, I should really get around to covering the latter poem one day, with it containing a veritable litany of English birds, many of them getting their first mention in English letters.) His poetry was also profane in its manners and often quite coarse, as with the poem that I have chosen for this post.

In fact, Skelton was one of the first great poets of the 16th century, or one of the last of the 15th. His very coarseness stopped him, for a very long time, from being considered quite respectable. The influential sixteenth century critic George Puttenham dismissed him as a ‘rude rhymer’ catering to common tastes, and this judgement seemed to stick.  Not a single poem of his is included in that repository of (mostly very good) Victorian taste, Palgrave’s Treasury, and he wasn’t really appreciated as an important poet until the twentieth century. But even his greatest admirer could not deny a certain crudeness and cynicism in the poet’s outlook.

Back when Henry VIII was plain old Prince Henry, second in line to the English throne, John Skelton, whose wit and learning had brought him great renown, was chosen as his tutor. In his biography of the king, England’s Nero, John Matusiak writes of the peculiar life of the young prince among yay-saying sycophants and courtiers, and the deleterious effect on his character and his understanding of others. As his tutor, Skelton was one of the few people (aside from the distant father, Henry VII) who could and did speak his mind to the king. Unfortunately, reports Matusiak, that mind was not the positive influence it could have been; although prodigiously learned and fond of preaching humanist virtue, Skelton was petty and vindictive in his personal life, with a liking for scurrilous rumour, and especially fond of showing up well to do women as whores. As for his poetry, Matusiak tells us, ‘Even the prettiest of his lyrics, My Darling My Daisy, which would have been sung at court before Henry, is a tale of betrayal by a girl with two lovers.’

Well, let us look at the offending poem:

 

With lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

‘My darling dear, my daisy flower

Let me,’ quod he, ‘lie in your lap.’

‘Lie still,’ quod she, ‘my paramour,

Lie still hardely, and take a nap.’                            (hardely = soundly)

His head was heavy, such was his hap,

All drowsy dreaming, drowned in sleep,

That of his love he took no keep,

With hey lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

With ‘Ba, ba, ba’ and bas, bas, bas’                                    (singing and kissing noises)

She cherished him both cheek and chin,

That he wist never where he was:                          (wist = knew)

He had forgotten all deadly sin.

He wanted with her love to win:

He trusted her payment and lost all his prey;      (prey = loot, booty)

She left him sleeping and stale away.                    (stale away = stole away)

With hey lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

The rivers rough, the waters wan,

She spared not to wet her feet;

She waded over, she found a man

That halsed her heartily and kissed her sweet.     (halsed – hugged)

Thus after her cold she caught a heat.

‘My lefe,’ she said, ‘routeth in his bed;                  (routeth – snores)

Ywis he hath an heavy head,

With hey lullay, lullay, like a child,

Thou sleepest too long, thou art beguiled.

 

What dreamiest thou, drunkard, drowsy pate?

Thy lust and liking is from thee gone;

Thou blinkard blowbowl, thou wakest too late,   (blowbowl –drunkard)

Behold thou liest, luggard, alone!

Well may thou sigh, well may thou groan,

To deal with her so cowardly:                            

Ywis, pole hatchet, she bleared thine eye.

(bleared thine eye – deceived you) (pole hatchet – pole axe wielding soldier)

*This version and most language notes from The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, Ed Emyrys Jones, OUP, Oxford, 1991

Puttenham might have called Skelton a rude rhymer, but actually he is a damn good rhymer – not one of the rhymes in the poem sounds stretched. He has a good line in alliteration too; indeed, occasionally he uses the full alliterative line of the old English tradition that survived into Middle English, best known in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – i.e. three alliterative stressed syllables, and one not alliterative. As well as having a jaunty rhythm, the poem is very vivid – Skelton is a great story-teller. The images of the poem somehow stick in the head: the sleepy man with his head in the unfaithful woman’s lap as she coos him to sleep, and then her wetting her feet as she crosses a stream to meet her other lover – I’m sure a Freudian could explain that. Most of all, the poem is funny, even if it is not a particularly edifying kind of humour…

However he may have failed at moulding Henry’s character, I have a suspicion Skelton was a greatly entertaining teacher. If we imagine that other famous pupil of a famous teacher, Alexander of Macedon staring out at the wide world outside his window, as Aristotle explained the finer points of the ancients, we imagine Henry listening with glee as someone actually breaks protocol and gives him an insight into the rotten soul of man… and, in the case of this poem, the faithless heart of woman.

We frown on this sort of thing these days and call it misogyny. And yes, Skelton in his personal life did seem to have more than the usual measure of late medieval scorn towards and contempt for women. But in this poem, he is talking about one particular woman, not womankind in general; one can take the poem as a warning to men to watch their women carefully, but the real driving force of the poem is not moral education, but shock and titillation. But I guess you could also say that it is his persistent focus on the failings of the weaker sex that betrays Skelton’s misogyny, and it is this, Matusiak thinks, that may have unduly influenced the King’s view of women:

Later, as a lovelorn youth, the prince would read romantic literature full of gallant indulgence to erring damsels and this too would leave a lasting influence. But when his ardour cooled, it was Skelton’s voice, perhaps more than any other’s, that would echo in his thoughts. (p25)

Those familiar with Henry’s torrid love life will think of Anne Boleyn, and how easily Henry believed the scurrilous rumours of her infidelity that were most likely the invention of her erstwhile ally Thomas Cromwell. And yet years later he would marry Katherine Howard, who, historians think, really does seem to have committed adultery as freely and shamelessly Skelton’s woman. Any good Catholic would tell you that none of that would have happened if Henry had stuck faithfully by his first, lawfully wedded wife. But there’s a little dark irony in the fact that Henry’s attitude to women, and thus his actions towards the church, may well have been influenced by a faithful, if suspicious, Catholic clergyman.

* Quotation from Henry VIII: The Life and Rule of England’s Nero, John Matusiak, The History Press, Gloucester, 2013

Pictures show Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Martin Luther, Holbein’s terrifying Henry VIII, and an unattributed sketch of John Skelton. All from Wikipedia.

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Lust in the Holy Land

July’s issue of the Wagon is available online now and highly readable. Please take a look here:

My own column looks at the figures of David, Solomon in modern poetry and the influence of Song of Songs. I know from my stats on WordPress that people like reading about smutty poems… so, please, have a read.

The July issue also contains some interesting poetry from the Chinese poet Hongri Yuan, among others; while John Looker’s Letter from London, comes this week from Dunedin in New Zealand, which is near enough – it includes an excellent recent poem of his.

***

I’ve been posting a bit at Andy Fleck’s Blog recently. A little side interest of mine last year, was where in history George R.R. Martin got his ideas from for his popular Game of Thrones novels. I wrote a couple of articles about it back then, but I’m only now getting around to posting them to tie in with the latest series. Not everyone’s cup of dragon’s blood, I expect, but possibly interesting for some.

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Shall I come, Sweet Love

A paraclausithyron is a poetic genre that originates in Ancient Greek, meaning ‘lament by a closed door.’ A lover, or suitor speaks aloud by the door of a woman who has refused him entry. Here is a salty example from Asclepiades of the Hellenistic Greek period.

The night is long, and it is winter weather, and night sets when the Pleiads are half-way up the sky. I pass and repass her door, drenched by the rain, smitten by desire of her, the deceiver. It is not love that Cypris smote me with, but a tormenting arrow red-hot from the fire.

(http://www.attalus.org/poetry/asclepiades.html)

Cypris, is another name for the Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, who was supposed by some to have originated in Cyprus, thus named so. Sherod Santos did away with the Goddess in his translation, and turned the second half of the poem into a question, starting ‘So how have I come / wet and whimpering / as a beaten dog […]? (I would heartily recommend Santos’s Greek Lyric Poetry to anyone – it was one of the books that ignited my interest in poetry about a decade ago; but one must accept his translations as creative, not strictly literal.) A question this brought to my mind was ‘what on earth did those infamously strict Greek fathers think of these lovelorn poets lurking outside their daughter’s doors’?

In this commentary on a paraclausithyron of Ovid, W. Turpin, part-answers the question for me, though it refers to Roman rather than Greek life: the lover is not outside a bedroom door, or even a front door, but the great wooden doors of the great courtyard through which a visitor would have to pass to reach the ‘front doors’ of the house. Thus a ‘paraclausithyron’ is not only a lament by the door, but effectively to the door – no-one else can hear it. In the poem Turpin is discussing, Ovid changes this a little by having the lover address the doorkeeper, a slave actually chained to his post on the inside of the doors, and responsible for letting people in, or not. In contrast to the short, bitter Asclepiades poem, Ovid’s is wry, rambling and somewhat deprecatory. Thus there is the predictable, and, to the modern reader, distasteful comparison of the slave’s actual chains and the lover’s slavery to love. And the lover makes several, part-humorous arguments to the doorkeeper to let him in the door. He leaves a garland of flowers for the girl, as literary convention demands, then, after a few final snipes at the door keeper, bids him farewell and departs.

 And, flowery wreath, which from my brows sadly I disengage, lie there upon this heartless threshold through the night. When on the morrow my mistress shall descry thee trailing there, tell her the hours that, sick at heart, I wasted at her door. Farewell, porter; in spite of all, I say to thee, farewell.

(Transl. J. Lewis May 1930, available here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo12.htm)

Farewell then, Ovid, and onto the 16th Century English poet and songwriter, Thomas Campion. In the sense that the speaker is at his love’s door, Campion’s poem can also be classed a paraclausithyron; but unlike Asclepiades’ and Ovid’s protagonist, the speaker addresses not the door, or doorkeeper, but the woman behind the door. Perhaps Campion, classically-minded though he was, wont to set his poems in an Arcadian idyll rather than England, had English houses in mind when he wrote this, although he too seems blithely unconcerned by the thought of the girl’s father.

 

Shall I come, sweet love, to thee,

When the evening beams are set?

Shall I not excluded be?

Will you find no feigned let?

Let me not, for pity, more

Tell the long hours at your door?

 

Who can tell what thief or foe,

In the covert of the night,

For his prey will work my woe,

Or through wicked foul despite?

So may I die unredressed,

Ere my long love be possessed.

 

But to let such dangers pass,

Which a lover’s thoughts disdain,

‘Tis enough in such a place

To attend love’s joys in vain.

Do not mock me in they bed,

While these cold nights freeze me dead.

 

(This version as printed in the NYRB English Renaissance Poetry, ed. John Williams)
In its humour, the poem sits between the two poets above: he is not as bitter and mournful as Asclepiades, but he does not deprecate the tradition of paraclausithyron as Ovid does. He is significantly more charming than either, and, unlike in the classical poems, there is a sense that he actually believes he might be let in, at least until the last stanza. The poem comes off more as an earnest attempt at a seduction, of sorts, even if in the end he settles for the conventional lover’s consolation of mere proximity to his love. And even if, yes, this seduction comes off as rather odd to our contemporary sensibility, relying as it does on emotional blackmail and shameless appeals to the woman’s pity.

There is a heavy element of carpe diem in the poem – in the suggestion that death is ever present and thus the lover must possess his love whilst he may. A generation or two later, Andrew Marvell would write his most famous poem with this motif in mind, contrasting the pleasures of love and the approaching horrors of death with comic aplomb. Marvell was also more explicit – or reductive – about what ‘possession’ of one’s love might actually entail – ‘tearing our pleasures with rough strife’, as he puts it; but Campion’s poem has the decorum of the drawing room to think of, where such coarse language might send the ladies of the house out blushing. Campion’s poem was, after all, a song too, to be played for a small audience in a domestic setting.

The music is quite as charming as the poem– here for example in the countertenor of Alfred Deller.

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Of a Contented Mind

800px-Thomas,_Lord_Vaux,_detail,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

Thomas Vaux by Hans Holbein

Thomas Vaux was a Catholic nobleman in the nervy middle years of the 16th Century. Friends with Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, he was much more troubled than they by the religious developments of Henry VIII’s reign, and effectively withdrew from public life for the latter years of the Henrican era and the even harsher (if less bloody) reforms of Edward VI’s minority, only to re-enter public life at the accession of Queen Mary. His descendants lived through more troubled times still for England’s loyal Catholics, as Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth was anathemised by the Pope, and Catholicism became straightforwardly treasonous in the view of the queen’s ministers. As Jesse Childs’ details wonderfully in her great book God’s Traitors, the family would be caught up in the war of espionage, propaganda and legalistic harassment between the state and its agents on one side, and the Vatican, the Catholic exiles and occasionally the French and the Spanish on the other.

Poetically, Vaux is often classed with a group of mid-sixteenth poets often known as the ‘natives’ who resisted (or simply never paid attention to) the new Italian forms and Petrarchisms that had such an impact on poets from Spenser and Sidney to Shakespeare and eventually Milton. This group is typified by George Gascoigne, and includes such poets as Barnabe Googe and Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as Thomas Vaux. The writer and anthologist John Williams, who championed this group, explained that readers should read the poems as if ‘mortals listening to mortals’: ‘if we listen to the poem, we shall hear beneath the emphatic stresses, beneath the bare and essential speech, the human cadence of the human voice, speaking to us as if we were alive.’

‘The Mortals’ would perhaps be a better name for the group, contrasting them quite nicely with those poets who are so better remembered and were awfully (sometimes tediously) fond of that renaissance trope about poetry making its subject and writer immortal. And, as Williams suggests, there is a great deal of the fallibly human in their poetry. One of Gascoigne’s better known poems is ‘Gascoigne’s Woodsmanship’ which details the numerous mistakes and bad luck of his many failed careers. (I do intend to have a closer look at Gascoigne’s poem one day) That poem could be seen as archetypal of the natives’ style and their tone. It starts as so:

My worthy Lord, I pray you wonder not
To see your woodman shoot so oft awry,
Nor that he stands amazèd like a sot,
And lets the harmless deer unhurt go by.

One easily imagines Gascoigne sitting in a London tavern reflecting with some rue – and some mirth – on his life’s misses, as his audience chuckle and sympathise, now and again adding their own reflections and occasionally raising the tone with a classical or Biblical allusion, though nothing too clever.

And one imagines the Catholic nobleman and poet Thomas Lord Vaux (wearing his title lightly in Henry or Edward’s reign) in a similar mode. Not in London perhaps, but at his manor in the midlands, or that of a fellow recusant, explaining  -or justifying – his withdrawal from public life. His justification would perhaps run a long similar lines to this poem…

 

When all is done and said, in the end thus shall you find,

He most of all doth bathe in bliss that hath a quiet mind:

And, clear from worldly cares, to deem can be content

The sweetest time in all his life in thinking to be spent.

 

The body subject is to fickle fortune’s power,

And to a million of mishaps is casual every hour:

And death in time doth change it to a clod of clay;

Whenas the mind, which is divine, runs never to decay.

 

Companion none is like unto the mind alone

For many have been harmed by speech; through thinking, few or none.

Fear oftentimes restraineth words, but makes not thought to cease;

And he speaks best that hath the skill when for to hold his peace.

 

Our wealth leaves us at death; our kinsmen at the grave;

But virtues of the mind unto the heavens with us we have:

Wherefore, for virtue’s sake, I can be well content

The sweetest time of all my life to deem in thinking spent.

 

Thomas Vaux, From English Renaissance Poetry, Selected by John Williams, NYRB

 

I wonder whether, ‘when all is said and done’ (or done and said) had as hackneyed a ring to it in the sixteenth century as in the twenty-first; I suspect not quite as much so. Though the language is sometimes almost too plain, and the imagery hardly original, there are some nice lines of poetry in there, and the poet expresses his thoughts in balanced, precise lines; those thoughts are not as trite as they might first appear – they are, given the poet’s circumstances, deadly serious.

 

The first stanza is straightforward Platonism, though Platonism expressed with the charming bumptiousness of a lord of the manor. Plato decreed that thinking, particularly thinking of abstract thoughts, was the noblest of pastimes, as compared to the lower class, plebian business of dealing with particulars and actually – ugh! – doing stuff. For Plato and his compadres, contemplation actually was a near-religious act, as it brought us away from the shadowy corrupt world of our senses and closer to the real world of ideal objects. That is why Vaux uses a phrase like ‘bathe in bliss’ (also for its alliteration of course).

 

After the elevated imagery of the previous stanza, the second brings us down to earth – that is, down to the image of our death, and our bodies turning to mud in the grave. There is again a strong flavour of Platonism, what with that philosopher’s separation of soul and body; but there is also something very medieval about the imagery too. Fickle fortune makes an appearance, and death is something ever-present, waiting to waylay the unsuspecting person. The point is to drive home the importance of our immortal souls, or minds, as opposed to our all too vulnerable, corruptible bodies.

 

The third stanza is, I think, the most revealing about the times Vaux lived in, and about his own attitude towards the temper of those times. ‘[M]any have been harmed by speech’ he tells us, ‘Through thinking few or none’. He is not exaggerating! Henry Howard, Vaux’s friend and fellow poet, met a nasty end after crossing the king, and did not help himself with a couple of thinly veiled and sharply observed criticisms of the monarch in his verse. But those were actually thought through verses – if not at all wise to publish. A man who really may have been harmed by his own thoughtless speech, was Sir Nicholas Carew, who lost his temper with Henry at a game of bowls one day, and soon after lost his head. It didn’t help Carew that he was of royal blood himself – Henry didn’t like rival bloodlines hanging around; and his demise may also have been related to some natty properties of the noble’s that Henry had his eye on. And also to the fact that in his younger days, Henry may well have slept with his wife. No one likes a guilty reminder hanging around. Whatever the particulars of Carew’s demise, Vaux was certainly wise to refrain from speaking his mind too clearly in Mid-Tudor England.

 

What Vaux is advocating, ultimately, is a kind quietism. In one’s own mind, one can let one’s thoughts range freely, but in the perilous public sphere, one is better advised not to speak freely. In fact, one had better stay away from that sort of thing altogether. Of course, he dresses this up in Platonic philosophy and medieval wisdom – and, in the last stanza, he insists this is all done ‘for virtue’s sake.’ Self-preservation must have played on his mind somewhat too.

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And wilt thou leave me thus?

Wyatt and Boleyn

Jamie Tomas King and Natalie Dormer as Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors (http://tudors.wikia.com/wiki/Thomas_Wyatt)

The above image is from HBO’s series The Tudors, and shows the lovelorn poet Thomas Wyatt wooing a somewhat less enamoured Anne Boleyn. In this scene of the series, Wyatt reads the below poem to Boleyn, and then she swiftly tells him never to see him again – not because of the poem, but because she knows the King of England wants her. We don’t know if such a scene ever took place, or indeed if Wyatt’s poem was inspired by his infatuation with the future queen, but of all the many liberties taken with history by that TV series, that was one of the more plausible ones: Boleyn really did terminate their relationship soon before being wooed by Henry VIII, and Wyatt really was besotted by her. Although it didn’t, alas for Wyatt – and for Boleyn – have the desired effect on its subject, it is indeed an arresting poem.

And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay, for shame,
To save thee from the blame
Of all my grief and grame;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath loved thee so long
In wealth and woe among?
And is thy heart so strong
As for to leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath given thee my heart
Never for to depart,
Neither for pain nor smart;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus
And have no more pity
Of him that loveth thee?
Alas, thy cruelty!
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

Thomas Wyatt

Notes: Grame- Sorrow; the ‘pity’ of the last stanza sometimes has an accent written on the second syllable; ‘Alas’ is sometimes written in French ‘Hèlas’

Wyatt is often credited (alongside Henry Howard) with bringing the influence of Petrarch into English poetry, an influence that would have such a great impact, for good and bad, through the English Renaissance and beyond. But there is much about this poem that is very un-Petrarchan. The language is plain and straightforward, and there are none of the elaborate metaphors and oxymorons that characterise Petrarchan poetry. Wyatt is not talking to his muse, to a distant and unobtainable image of feminine perfection, such as Petrarch, Dante and so many of their imitators, but a real woman, albeit one suddenly unobtainable. It is a poem with something of what has been called the ‘native’ tradition of English poetry, typified by Skelton and, especially, Gascoigne. The novelist John Williams, who edited the NYRB’s English Renaissance Poems, characterised this group rather nattily as ‘mortals speaking to mortals’. In this poem a mortal, that is normal – and, frankly rather desperate man, vents his feelings to his belle, aloof and cold-hearted, perhaps, but accessible enough to address directly.

Each stanza consists of a tercet in iambic trimeter (bada bada bada  – to save thee from the blame / of all my grief and grame) sandwiched between the poem’s refrain. As C. Jobin has pointed out down in the comments, one of Wyatt’s great skills was the adaptation of Italian forms to the English language with its accentual (‘stress-timed’) rhythm, as opposed to the syllabic rhythm of most Romance languages. Unlike French, Italian and Spanish poets, who must count the number of syllables in a line, an English poet should (while paying heed to the number of syllables) instead count the number of stresses. The correct placement of stressed and unstressed syllables will affect how natural the poem sounds in the reading. A skillful poet can vary the meters of individual lines of the poem, according to the rhetorical tone required, without breaking the underlying rhythm of the poem. Wyatt does this exceptionally well, only faltering on the words ‘pity’ and ‘cruelty’, which we feel compelled to pronounce pity and cruelty. This aside, he follows the natural rhythm of English very well.

This might be the first poem in the English language to start with the word ‘and’. Of course, starting with and may have been put there as a necessary unstressed syllable before the stressed ‘wilt’. But it somehow  creates a quite modern impression. We seem to be are coming onto the scene in media res, as they say on screenwriting courses, as if the girl has just declared her intention to break their engagement, and the poet is giving his heartfelt response. Having asked her if she really will leave like this, he does not let her get a word in, but appeals rather ‘say nay, say nay’ – a refrain that is repeated at the end of each stanza. This emotional ejaculation makes up the first four syllables of the first tercet, and the effect is to make the start of the poem more conversational . This may not have been Wyatt’s intention, but it could be said to reflect the state of mind of the scorned lover.

The poet goes on in his incredulous way, pleading the woman to stay, listing the brief reasons why she shouldn’t leave. For anyone used to the love sonnets of Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney et al, it is very direct and undecorated. There are, as I said, no elaborate metaphors – no metaphors at all, in fact – and no clever conceits. The ideas expressed may be conventional – some lines indeed are very similar to traditional marriage vows, and many are quite formulaic – but they are apt.

Where the poem really succeeds is in the marriage of a formal poetic form with a natural English rhythm, which makes it sound like an authentic (if unsuccessful) attempt at wooing, and more importantly to allow the charming voice of the 16th century poet to emerge.

The poem is also, how to put this? … abject. He appeals to the woman’s pity for him rather more than we might think manly these days. Sixteenth century men had a very different idea of what emotions were worthy of poetry. Could you think of a poem from subsequent centuries quite so pathetic and desperate? Certainly, it is hard to imagine any poet of the twentieth century laying down such emotions so baldly. Such sentiments are nowadays more likely to be heard in pop music – off the top of my head, say, Don’t Leave Me This Way by the Communards, but I’m sure you could think of a half-dozen others. Thus (if we were being a bit silly), we could say that Wyatt with all his other achievements wrote an early example of the ‘Don’t leave me, baby’ genre of lyrics.

Interestingly, this poem was put to music by the early 20th Century composer Peter Warlock, who turned many poems into songs. His composition is a eerie with a lovely piano melody, although the song lacks the human warmth and natural rhythm of the poem read by the spoken voice.

N.B. I amended parts of this post in response to C. Jobin’s comments below. Thanks to her for her important observations.

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Lucks, My Fair Falcon

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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.

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Raleigh on his Execution

After a long hiatus (mostly due to the birth of my daughter), I am blogging again here, and also over at Andy Fleck’s Blog. The remit is a little wider than Sweettenorbull, but there will still be a lot about poetry. I guess about a quarter of the posts will focus on poetry, and I will reblog those here on Sweettenorbull.

Andy Fleck's Blog

One of the books I enjoyed over the winter was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, which imagines the life and death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. His Marlowe is an odd character: quick-tempered, quick-witted, provocative and quick to draw his sword, he is oddly reminiscent of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Marlowe comes across as somewhat sophomoric, but then he was young, and must have been a sharp character to have lived the life he lived; as well as being a prodigious playwright from a fairly humble background, Marlowe was rumoured to be a homosexual, an atheist and a spy for the Elizabethan government.

I preferred another of the historical characters in the book, Sir Walter Raleigh,  – a warm and wily old adventurer, enjoying the company of his comrades while he must guard his back against his enemies at court.The more I read about Raleigh, the less he…

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