WYATT AS A SONNETEER OR WYATT’S CONTRIBUTION TO ENGLISH POETRY
Wyatt and Surrey were the pioneers of “Modern English poetry.” Under Henry viii, these two were inspired by “Humanism” which brought a great revolution in poetry. The poetry of their age was also marked with the influence of Italian Renaissance. Both these court poets took the charge of rebuilding poetry on new lines and it was in Italy that they found both models and stimulus. However, their efforts of bringing new changes in poetry ceased because of their premature demises. Let’s discuss Wyatt as a writer of sonnets and his contribution to the development of Sonnet in England.
As a sonneteer, the first major quality of Wyatt is that he is the pioneer and inaugurator of golden age of English poetry in the reign of Elizabeth 1. It was he who found that the English language could be used for court poetry due to its flexibility and elegance. This is what makes Wyatt prominent from all the other poets. He used the English language as a weapon to display courtly love tradition in his poetry. We have the best example of poem, “The Long Love That in my Thought That Harbor.” This poem is unique and matchless for its display of courtly love tradition. Shakespeare also followed it in his sonnet 18.
Second major quality of Wyatt as a sonneteer is that he introduced Petrarchan sonnet which later came to be known as Shakespearean, in England. “The credit of evolving the Shakespearean form is thus almost entirely due to Wyatt”, remarks a renowned critic. He had just one purpose and it was to strive to restore the nobility of English verse and to find out the harmony and grandeur it had lost. However, when we start reading his poems, we are surprised to see and think that perhaps he was unaware of the accent, regularity and prosody in his verses. His rhymes manifestly fall on the unaccented syllables. However, he attained comparative regularity. Then, we see him borrowing from the Italian poetic forms which were unknown to his fellow countrymen. As a critic observes: “Wyatt plainly combined two elements in his poetry i.e. the native and the foreign. He was the heir of an English lyrical tradition.”
Third major quality of Wyatt is that he introduced lyricism in English poetry again. Whether it was translated or imitated, it gave birth to music of feeling or passion. It called forth the rare word, the metaphor, subtlety and condensation. As a critic says: “He is not a visual poet, but produces good effects with sense and emotional tone.”
Fourth major quality of Wyatt is that he followed Petrarch and coloured his poetry with new and bold images. This step by Wyatt paved the way for the other English poets who great a great advantage and created many changes in this form. He speaks of love in the following words.
“Into my face presseth with bold pretence
And their campeth displaying his banner.”
Before Wyatt, this impassioned language was entirely unknown in English poetry.
His sighs and supplications were also Petrarchan in nature. His nature was frank and manly like the proud portrait which Holbein made of him. We see the groans of humility suiting him ill.
“My heart I gave thee, not to do it pain.”
He again says:
“For he that doth believe bearing in hand,
Plougheth in the water and soweth in the sand.”
He bids farewell not to his mistress only but to love also.
“With idle youth go use thy property.”
Fifth major quality of Wyatt as a sonneteer is that he censures and renounces love poems for satire. That’s why, all the satiric pieces introduced by Wyatt, though imitated from Horace and Alammani, are among his happiest innovations which also bring before us his energetic and bold character. However, the satire on court is scathing. The courtier, who has been withdrawn from the court, narrates the vices, hypocrisy and wretchedness he has observed. He gives his reasons of withdrawing from it. “I cannot frame my tune to feign, to cloak the truth for praise without desert of them that list all vice to retain. I cannot speak and look like as a saint, use wile for wit————that most help offer.” He also laughs at the gallants who want to improve their fortunes by marrying old rich wives.
Sixth major quality of Wyatt as a sonneteer is that the there are only a few poems which have been coloured with personal satires and cavalier tones. In “Madam, Withouten Many Words”, he calls upon his mistress to answer him ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay.’
“My lute, awake! Perform the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste;
And end that I have now begun:
And when this song is sung in the past,
My lute, be still, for I have done.”
Seventh major quality of Wyatt as a sonneteer is his presentation of two sides of love i.e. physical and spiritual but there is no tinge of any unity between both these sides of love in his poetry. This is what also makes him different from the Petrarchan mould and he becomes prominent in his writing style.
Eighth major quality of Wyatt as a sonneteer is that Like John Donne, his poetic works are also replete with personal touches. Even the works translated from the Italian have personal touches in them. The personal satire is very sound in Wyatt’s three poems which are based on materialism and folly of his time. The diction of satire is direct for he speaks of man’s lust, man’s futility and man’s lust for earthly power.
Ninth major quality of Wyatt as a sonneteer is that he reformed English poetry and donated it a more Continental direction, a new compression and Renaissance ideals of rhetorical cogency and unity. It can be observed in Elizabethan Sonneteers such as Spenser, Sidney, Pope and Swift. Most of the sonnets written by Wyatt are merely the translations of Petrarch’s works. They follow the original poems in so far as their rhyme scheme is concerned. However, there are few differences. One major difference is “Ending Couplet.” With it, he also created some metrical changes in English verse. A critic remarks: “Wyatt’s careful patterning of the translation upon the original Italian models cleared the way for the emergence of contemporary English style.”
To sum up, Wyatt’s contribution to English poetry is remarkable and can never be overlooked. No doubt, most of the critics such as Tillyard and C.S. Lewis are right when they claim that Wyatt’s sonnets have dearth of intrinsic merits in them. They further claim that these sonnets are the worst part of his poetry. Tillyard remarks: “For the sake of reputation, Wyatt had better not have imported the sonnet into England, for by doing so, he purchased a text book glory at the price of advertising the class of poems that does his poetical powers less credit.” C.S. Lewis has gone to the extent of saying: “The Elizabethan sonnet might not have been very different if Wyatt had never lived.” No doubt, there are some flaws and limitations in his sonnets. He completely ignores the use of similes and metaphors in his sonnets. Like John Donne, he is too complicated to understand for an ordinary reader in so far as his language and syntax are concerned. However, there are just three critics who claim that Wyatt’s sonnets possess merit in them. They are of the opinion that critics like Tillyard and C.S. Lewis have not been fair to Wyatt when they criticize Wyatt for his sonnets. In the end, I would like to say that whatever the critics opine, Wyatt has a great place as a sonneteer in English literary history. His works on sonnet cannot be connived at any cost. Though there are some shortcomings in his writing style but it was he who modified the form of sonnet which later came in the hands of Shakespeare and was made mature by Shakespeare and predecessors. A critic remarks: “Wyatt proved to be very beneficial to the later Elizabethan poets.” It is not a mean achievement if we don’t have any type of prejudice against Wyatt. We fully agree with the remarks of Court Hope who observes: “Of grandeur he was never a master. The sonnet was not his proper medium. However, he occupies a position in English poetry in some respects as important as that of Chaucer. A statesman, a courtier, and a scholar, he thought vigorously and felt ardently in each position that he occupied.” (Words: 1419)