Renaissance Humanism comes to English letters: Wyatt, “I am as I am”
Courtiers played a dangerous game at Henry VIII’s court. The King himself was ruthlessly amoral and did not fret excessively over using brute force (including executions) to drag the country through radical changes. (His daughters would also find the executioner to be a useful political ally.) Over time he became dangerously unstable, and neither evidence nor a legal justification was necessary to result in beheadings. Courtiers, the class whose fortunes ebbed or waned at the bidding of the sovereign, themselves of course trimmed their consciences accordingly; in fact they tailored their politics to fit the times. There was no such thing as policy disagreement—only treason. With every hanger-on a potential accuser or informant, and the King becoming more suspicious and more capricious with each passing year, the life of every ambitious person (so much less his office) was never secure.
It was a strange garden for the first flowering of English letters. But the King was in many senses a Renaissance man, and at the beginning cultivated the best and most enlightened minds of the aristocracy. When Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) came up to Court as his father’s clerk in 1524, he was eminently qualified to attract attention and had the personality and good will necessary to withstand considerable buffeting, which he would receive in due course.
The Making of a Courtier
Thomas Wyatt’s father, Sir Henry Wyatt, gained his station from a decision he made in his early 20s: to throw in his lot with Henry Tudor in the effort to depose Richard III. It is not known why Henry Wyatt made this decision (or indeed much about Henry Wyatt before he did so), but the decision would have consequences. According to this family (especially his son Thomas), Henry was imprisoned and tortured. Legend had it that Richard himself offered Henry Wyatt the chance to forsake Henry Tudor and join him, but Henry (politely, of course) refused. And so Richard watched him receive the rack and something like waterboarding (only with vinegar and mustard).
When Henry Tudor became Henry VII, he did not forget Henry Wyatt’s loyalty. (Henry Wyatt undoubtedly fought for Henry Tudor, even if the Tower of London story is a myth.) Wyatt, who carried out diplomatic engagements for the King, would become a member of the Privy Council and later one of the executors of Henry VII’s will. After the King’s death, Wyatt was one of the managers of public affairs while Henry VIII remained a minor. After the coronation Henry Wyatt was made Knight of the Bath and entered Henry VIII’s Privy Council. Other titles followed Wyatt’s valor at the Battle of the Spurs. He also became a close associate and friend of Thomas Boleyn, the father of the woman who caused Henry to break with Rome. In 1512, for example, he was appointed joint constable of Norwich Castle with Sir Thomas. (For a while the connection with the Boleyns enhanced one’s connection with the Crown.) In short, Henry Wyatt’s unwavering loyalty to the Tudors was repeatedly rewarded by two kings, and that good will was bound to pass to Henry’s son, Thomas Wyatt.
Wyatt the younger also had ample attributes to make him attractive to Henry. Foremost, he was actually learned; he was not simply the dilettante that most courtiers were. He graduated from St. John’s at Cambridge (B.A. 1518; M.A. 1520), (possibly) having studied also at Oxford. He spoke four languages (and, as any university graduate, was familiar with the classics). His fawning eighteenth century admirer Clarke says he sang and played the lute, but gives no source for the statement. Wyatt wrote trenchant prose; his diplomatic correspondence to the King “pleased marvellously well,” according to Thomas Wriothesley, one of the Henry’s principal Secretaries. He helped modernize English poetry and introduced the sonnet from Italy. He was tall, well-built and handsome. He dabbled in the martial spirit of the courtier. He may have spent time in the army. If not, he somehow otherwise acquired the skills to become one of the 16 participants in the King’s stylized jousting, “mazy dances” and feats-of-arms tournament at Greenwich right after Christmas in 1525.
Even with talent it required opportunity to be noticed, however. Wyatt’s first big opportunity came in 1525 when he was selected to accompany Thomas Cheney on a diplomatic mission to France. Cheney was probably a friend of Sir Henry Wyatt, because they were neighbors and because Cheney was a supporter of Anne (until her fall, when she became friendless). But Thomas Wyatt was intelligent and useful in his own right; the journey was no junket. Cheney and the resident ambassador to France wrote a letter of recommendation, noting that Wyatt “hath been at court with us from time to time, and as we think, hath as much wit to mark and remember everything he saith as any young man in England.”
A successful mission led to another (in 1527 to the Papal Court with Sir John Russell and then Venice alone after Russell broke his leg). It was during this visit that he supposedly eluded or escaped from the Spanish troops of Emperor Charles V. In 1529-32 he occupied the post of high marshal of a small command, then marshal of the town of Calais. In 1533 he was admitted to the Privy Council, and performed the service (in place of his father) of Royal Ewerer at the coronation of Anne Boleyn (and poured scented water on her hands). It was undoubtedly before this time that Wyatt had attracted the attention of Thomas Cromwell, the highly adept politician and chief adviser to Henry, who was the force who cleared away all obstacles to the marriage between Anne and Henry. Cromwell would become Thomas Wyatt’s mentor, ensuring his expenses were paid on foreign missions, watching over his affairs at home, and offering fatherly advice about his deranged finances and chiding him for his overly generous inclination to lend money.
But Wyatt needed his skills the most when Anne Boleyn fell. Her arrest, together with her five alleged paramours (including her brother) showed that this time Henry was not going to rely on legalisms or pleadings to end a marriage. The strike came so suddenly and the fear was so general that even Anne’s father acquiesced, not lifting a finger in defense of his children. It would not have helped, of course, and he might have died in the process. But what are fathers to do in defense of their children? He did nothing and was ruined anyway. Thomas Cromwell took his office as Lord Privy Seal.
Because of the families’ connection, Thomas Wyatt also came under suspicion. The two families lived near each other, and Thomas knew Anne since they were children. His older sister Margaret (later Lady Margaret Lee) became one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. She was so close to Anne that she attended to her on the scaffold, for which Anne gave her a gilt prayer-book. Margaret would lead the small group of mourners after her death. Thomas also came in contact with Anne when she made an excursion to Calais in 1532 and back at Court when Anne was attendant to Queen Catherine.
His connection left Wyatt’s opponents with an opening, and there were rumors that he would be arrested. And in fact he was, but evidently not for suspicions relating to Anne; rather for assaulting Henry Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, a particular favorite of Henry VIII. Wyatt the previous year had gotten into an affray with the sergeants in London , and a sergeant died in the affair. Watt was said to have been sent to Fleet Prison for that brawl. It therefore probably took some maneuvering for Cromwell get him out of this second scrape. But after a month in prison, Wyatt was released to “amend his conduct” in the custody of his father.
The affair did not seem to affect Wyatt’s standing at court, perhaps because Henry understood violent tempers. Wyatt was in due course knighted and then in 1537 made the Sheriff of Kent. Nevertheless, it probably gave his enemies some encouragement to know there was some blood in the water. And the rumors concerning his relationship with Anne Boleyn served many purposes. Of course his enemies could use it against him at Court. Later literary romantics, on the other hand, used the story to fluff Wyatt’s (and more recently Anne’s) reputation. But the Catholic propagandists of Mary’s reign used the story to sully Anne’s reputation and make Henry’s breach with Rome appear as nothing more than a squalid affair brought about by unprincipled seduction (an age-old theme). Nicholas Harpsfield, Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury, and leading persecutor of Protestants during her reign, wrote an entire treatise on Anne as Jezebel. Both Wyatt and Henry come across as virtuous men of honor compared to the wanton seductress, with an insatiable sexual appetite:
Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder, understanding that the King minded to marry her, came to him and said, Sir I pray your grace pardon me, both of my offence and my boldness. I am come to your grace of myself to discover and utter my own shame but yet my most bounden duty and loyalty that I owe to your grace, and the careful tendering of your honor more than of m own honesty forceth me to do this. Sir, I am credibly informed that your grace intendeth to take to your wife the Lady Anne Bulleyn, wherein I beseech your grace to be well advised what you do, for she is not meet to be copled with your grace, her conversation hath been so loose and base which thing I know not so much by hear-say as by my own experience as one that have had my carnal pleasure with her. At the hearing of this, the King for a while being something astonyed, said to him,—Wyatt, thou hast done like an honest men, yet I charge thee to make no more words of this matter to any living man.
On the basis of allegations from the coarse mind of the religious polemicist, Wyatt’s poetry has been scoured to find traces of the supposed relation between Boleyn and Wyatt. A few poetic scraps have been heaped up to convince some literary historians of the relationship. And now the mutual attraction is given out as certain fact in the popular literature surrounding Anne Boleyn. There remains no historical evidence for the supposition, however.
The Unmaking of a Courtier
Wyatt’s position did not ultimately depend on public approval or even close attention from the King. Wyatt’s security rested on Thomas Cromwell, who had been sure-footed in treacherous terrain so far. Cromwell now selected Wyatt for his most important and difficult diplomatic mission. Wyatt was charged with the near impossible task of forging an alliance between Henry and Emperor Charles V, who, as nephew of Catherine of Aragon, was not personally predisposed towards the King. The mission required Wyatt to remain in Spain, which could not have pleased him. Spain of course was not Italy as would be painfully clear to a man attached to literature and music. It was the most reactionary country in Europe, where the Inquisition prowled everywhere and was almost as powerful as the Emperor. And Charles was implacable against Henry. Part of Wyatt’s unhappiness in Spain must have been due to the observation that the French, fighting the forces of Charles in Italy, were the natural allies of England, not the Emperor. This was the policy promoted by Queen Anne, and it was a factor in her downfall. Wyatt was either too loyal or too prudent to involve himself in grand strategy.
To make matters worse, the King thought the mission important enough to send two envoys to assist, Simon Heynes and Edmund Bonner. Each had entirely separate reasons for seeking to break Wyatt—Heynes was supremely ambitious; Bonner was secretly devoted to Rome—and they had a common reason: they were both offended by the cavalier treatment they received from Wyatt. They reported many things but their crucial allegations were that Wyatt spoke disrespectfully of the King and conspired traitorously with Reginald Pole, who had denied the legality of the annulment of the Catherine marriage and called on the crowned prices to depose Henry. (Bonner would later join with Pole in burning Protestants in the days of Mary I.) What he learned of the allegations must have rankled a man with a temper as explosive as Wyatt’s, but he remained in Spain discharging his office for two years. When he returned he demanded a thorough investigation into all the charges made against him. Cromwell waived them off as insignificant. He likely prevented the charges from reaching anyone capable of commencing a prosecution. Wyatt for his part went home and spent several months in Kent before he was sent on yet another important assignment, again to Charles V.
This time, however, alliance with the Emperor was not the goal. Policy in London had changed by necessity: the Truce of Nice ended the Italian War between Charles and Francis I, so the Emperor had no real need for Henry now. The new strategy was to align with Germany. To that end Cromwell pushed Henry to fulfill his promise to marry Anne of Cleves despite Henry’s strong disinclination once he met her. So Wyatt’s mission to Charles was not so much to liaise with him but rather to shadow him. Wyatt was sent to France to join up with him and, when possible, frustrate any move contrary to Henry’s interests.
Charles was on the move toward Belgium. Wyatt met him at Chateaureault and followed him to Paris, Brussels and then Ghent. He wrote vivid and insightful dispatches back to the court, seemed to enjoy the game of international diplomatic stratagems, acted rejuvenated for a while, but then got tired of the whole thing. He requested to be summoned home. When he returned in May 1540 he discovered the disaster: Cromwell was about to fall. The marriage to Anne of Cleves proved immediately intolerable to Henry. And Cromwell would bear the full weight of that blunder. Wyatt retired to Kent, and Cromwell was arrested on June 10. A bill of attainder was passed on June 29. And Cromwell was executed on July 28, 1540. Wyatt no longer had a protector at Court. And Bonner was now Bishop of London, and Heynes, after signing the decree annulling Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, would become one of the first prebendaries of Westminster. It was only a matter of time before the old charges would surface.
Wyatt was arrested in the beginning of 1541 and sent to the Tower. The Privy Council demanded that he respond in writing and list every contact or correspondence he had with any treasonous person. Wyatt responded indignantly (but fully). At his trial there was no evidence that he directly had any dealing with Pool. In the statement he made in his own defense after trial (persons accused of treason were not then entitled to counsel) he admitted that while in Spain he sent Mason to meet Pool, but vigorously asserted it was solely to obtain intelligence of his intentions. He also stated that Mason’s mission was not only the kind of thing often engaged in by ambassadors but it was also agreed to specifically in this case by both Heynes and Bonner themselves (who failed to testify). The jury acquitted Wyatt.
Freed, Wyatt retired to his castle in Kent and wrote his satires (in terzas rimas) and his penitential psalms. In Tudor England, however, what did not get you beheaded was no longer something that concerned Henry. In the fall of 1542 he was ordered to travel to Falmouth to meet a delegation from Charles V in connection with a war on France that the Emperor and the King were considering. On his way there, he contracted a fever and died in Sherborne on October 10-11, 1542. He was 39.
The Courtier as Poet
Capricious egoist that he was, Henry VIII nevertheless sparked a rebirth of the arts in England by his interest in music, painting and poetry and by encouraging his courtiers by his example and by gifts of office. Wyatt along with another courtier, the Earl of Surrey, were the first serious poets since Chaucer. But since Chaucer wrote more than a century and a half before and indeed in a different dialect, Wyatt and Surrey might justly be called the fathers of modern English poetry.
The lives and tastes of these two poets were remarkably similar, although Wyatt was about 15 years older than Surrey. (Surrey in fact was only a few years older than Wyatt’s own son.) They were both well-educated, which meant, above all, they knew Latin (and some Greek) authors. They both were fluent in multiple languages, and both admired the literature of Italy. They both employed versions of the Italian sonnet, after Petrarch, with Wyatt receiving principal credit for its introduction. Wyatt also used the terza rima form invented by Dante. Their personalities seemed similar, and their careers ran in a parallel course. Both participated in royal jousting tournaments. Both at one time commanded a garrison of troops. Both were imprisoned for violent assaults. Both were connected to the Boleyn family. (Surrey was Anne Boleyn’s cousin.) While Wyatt’s father was the Royal Ewerer and Thomas Wyatt performed that office during Anne Boleyn’s coronation, Surrey carried the sword before the King in that ceremony and would later act as cup-bearer for the King.
Surrey’s family outranked Wyatt’s in social eminence, but Surrey admired Wyatt all the same. It was Surrey who described Wyatt’s appearance as one in which “force and beauty met.” Surrey had closer family and personal connections with the King. (He was the playmate of the King’s son, Henry FitzRoy, at the request of the King to Surrey’s father in 1529, and Anne Boleyn once suggested Surrey marry the King’s daughter Mary.) But in the end that did not save him. Surrey was beheaded at the end of Henry’s reign. It is tempting to think that Wyatt was more cautious or politic than Surrey, but the fact is simply that Wyatt died before the increasingly random blows of the violently unstable Henry would inevitably touch him.
Wyatt’s poems probably circulated during his lifetime in manuscript form, but they were not first printed until 15 years after his death. In June 1557 Richard Tottel published his anthology of recent poets entitled Tottel’s Miscellany. It included 96 poems of Wyatt, 40 poems of Surrey, 40 poems of Nicholas Grimald and about 100 poems whose authorship was uncertain. Although Tottel selected more poems from Wyatt than any other poet, he seems not to have truly trusted Wyatt’s poetic sensibilities. Tottel was a stickler for strictly consistent scansion. If a poem were iambic, then Tottel wanted every foot to be iambic or he would fix it (and did). Bullert points out that under Tottel’s concept of poetics, one of the most famous lines of English poetry would have been defective:
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit ….
But Tottel of course never read Milton, and if he published him, who knows?, he might have changed Milton’s line as well.
The poem below was not included in the collection of Tottel, possibly because it did not meet his standards for correct scansion. (Tillyrand published it from a manuscript and he modernized some orthography). The metrical “problems” seem to begin in the second line, which appears to break the meter of the first:
First line: iamb, anapaest, iamb, anapaest
da-DUM da-da-DUM, da-DUM, da-da-DUM
Second line: iamb, anapaest, amphibrach, trochee
da-DUM, da-da-DUM, da-DUM-da, DUM-da
The third line has an extra syllable after the first anapest (making the first foot technically a tertius paeon). If you go through the stanzas with a pencil you can note unusual substitutions for the standard iamb, which takes hold beginning in the second stanza. Of course, strict adherence to a repeated metrical pattern tends to make the verse sound sing-sing. And poets ought to change rhythm for effect or for meaning. The preferred result is when the meter is natural enough to hide the underlying rhythm and that rhythm itself is not awkward (either by being too strict or too clumsy). You can decide if Wyatt’s metrical changes are justified by the effect they achieve. For myself, I find that at least some of the unexpected feet are simply forced. It would be easy to see the poem as a lyric to a song (perhaps one composed by Wyatt) with the extra unaccented syllables “swallowed” as is often the case in folk or popular music. That conclusion is undercut by the reference in line 29 to the readers of the poem, rather than listeners.
Whatever problems Wyatt has with strict prosody, he maintains a uniform number of stressed syllables in each line of a particular poem. And that itself was a step up from the chaotic versifiers who came before him.
In the next post on Wyatt I’ll give more thoughts on the technical qualities of Wyatt’s poems, but here let’s just look at another aspect of today’s poem—a poem that has some autobiographical significance. While it’s not possible to date Wyatt’s poetry with precision (and most can’t even be guessed at), the poem below likely was written after his last imprisonment: the line “be I bond or be I free” suggests a recent acquaintance with incarceration. The tone also suggests poise in the face of false accusation (the same tone as his closing statement at the trial).
Regardless of the circumstances that led to the creation, the poem has a Renaissance viewpoint. The narrator asserts his right to his personhood regardless what others think. Even in despotic Tudor England, a man (at least an aristocratic man) has a right to his personality that a Medieval man would never claim. And the pose he strikes, fundamentally Stoic, comes straight from Seneca.
Seneca was the guide that Wyatt recommended to his son in the two letters he wrote from Spain. The two surviving letters themselves were based on the style of Seneca’s Epistles. And of course it’s long been noted that Seneca’s spirit hung over Elizabethan drama quite heavily, providing it with its structure, the rip-roaring melodramatic storylines included especially for the masses and the sententious maxims and sentiments aimed at the more thoughtful. Polonius is a parody of the meddling advice giver. Wyatt in his letters to his sons is not as banal and a bit more sincere than Polonius. And the life guide he gives his son is the same philosophy he claims he lives by in this poem. Here is how he put that philosophy in prose to his son:
Seek not I pray thee, my Son, that Honesty which appeareth, and is not indeed. Be well assured it is no common thing, nor no common man’s judgment to judge well of Honesty; nor it is no common thing to come by; but so much it is the more goodly, for that it is so rare and strange.
Follow not therefore the common reputation of Honesty. If you will seem honest, be honest; or else seem as you are. Seek not the name without the thing; nor let not the name be the only mark you shoot at …
The coming to this point that I would so fain have you have, is to consider a man’s own self what he is, and wherefore he is; and herein let him think verily that so goodly a work as man is, for whom all other things were wrought, was not wrought but for goodly things.
And this is how he puts that same worldview in lyrics:
I am as I am
(Tillyard ed. from the “D” Ms [Additional MS. 17492 ] at the British Museum) by Sir Thomas Wyatt
I am as I am and so will I be,
But how that I am none knoweth truly;
Be it evil be it well, be I bond be I free,
I am as I am and so will I be.
I lead my life indifferently;
I mean nothing but honestly;
And though folks judge diversely,
I am as I am and so will I die.
I do not rejoice nor yet complain,
Both mirth and sadness I do refrain,
And use the mean, since folks will feign;
Yet I am as I am, be it pleasure or pain.
Divers do judge as they do trow,
Some of pleasure and some of woe,
Yet for all that nothing they know;
But I am as I am wheresoever I go.
But since judgers do thus decay,
Let every man his judgment say;
I will it take in sport and play,
For I am as I am whosoever say nay.
Who judgeth well, well God him send;
Who judgeth evil, God them amend;
To judge the best therefore intend,
For I am as I am and so will I end.
Yet some there be that take delight
To judge folks’ thought for envy and spite;
But whether they judge me wrong or right,
I am as I am and so do I write.
Praying you all that this do read
To trust it as you do your creed,
And not to think I change my weed,
For I am as I am however I speed.
But how that is I leave to you;
Judge as ye list false or true;
Ye know no more than afore ye knew,
Yet I am as I am whatever ensue.
And from this mind I will not flee,
But to you all that misjudge me,
I do protest as ye may see,
That I am as I am and so will I be.
Notes on the Poem:
Line 11: Tillyrand tries to make “mean” into “meaning” and distorts the thought. Wyatt is saying that he is taking the middle ground (the “mean”) between mirth and sadness, since other people dissemble.
Line 13: “trow”: suppose or think
Line 17: “decay”: in the sense of “fail.”
Line 31: “weed”: clothing, as in “outward appearance”
Line 32: “speed”: succeed, prosper
Line 34: “list”: be inclined; choose
Gerald Bullett, Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century (London: J.M. Dent & Co; 1947).
Charles Cowden Clarke (ed.), The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt with Memoir and Critical Dissertation (Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo: 1868).
John W. Cunliffe, The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy (London: Macmillan & Co: 1893).
A.K. Foxwell, A Study of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Poems (London: University of London Press: 1911).
Gordon Goodwin, “Simon Heynes,” Dictionary of National Biography (London: Smith, Elder & Co: 1886-1900), vol. 26, p. 325.
Nicholas Harpsfield, A treatise on the pretended divorce between Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon, ed. Nicholas Pocock (London: For the Camden Society: 1878).
Sidney Lee, “Henry Howard,” Dictionary of National Biography (London: Smith, Elder & Co: 1886-1900), vol. 24, pp. 24-28.
Henry Morley, A First Sketch of English Literature (London: Cassell & Co: 1912).
Geo[rge] Fred[erick] Nott, The Works of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown: 1815-16) (2 volumes).
E.M. Spearing, The Elizabethan Translations of Seneca’s Tragedies (Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons Ltd: 1912).
Richard Tottel, Tottel’s Miscellany. Songes and Sonnettes: first and second editions  collated by Edward Arber (London: n.p.: 1870).
E.M.W. Tillyrand, The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt: A Selection and a Study (London: The Scholartis Press: 1929).
Thomas Wyatt, The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt [with Memoir by Sir Harris Nicolas] (London: The Aldine edition of the British poets by C. Whittingham: 1831).