Wyatt (1536-1537) This poem is one of three epistolary satires—satirical poems written as letters— attributed to Sir Thomas Wyatt. It is addressed to John Poynz (Poins), a fellow courtier and friendly correspondent from Gloucestershire. The poem is a rough translation of Luigi Alamanni's (1495-1556) "Tenth Satire," and follows the Italian poem in several particulars though it also focuses more specifically on Wyatt's own de facto house arrest on his family's estate during 1536. It is a long answer to the implied question of why he is absent from the court—why he "draws" homeward rather than following the "press of courts" (ll. 2-3). He first assures Poins that it is not a matter of contempt for royal power and influence, though he does reserve for himself a deeper-piercing judgment than to blindly adore the great and powerful as the more common sort might (ll. 7-13).
As the poem proceeds, Wyatt is willing to admit that he would like preferment and honor as much as the next person; however, he is not willing to part with his honesty to do so (ll. 17-18). Here the satire reaches a fuller voice by repeating the motif of what he "cannot" do. Each behavior enumerated, each brand of dishonesty and injustice, helps him do the work of the satirist by exposing the vices of a court that by its nature looks magnificent. First, he cannot flatter; he cannot offer praise to those who deserve censure (ll. 19-21). Second, he cannot honor those whose lives are given over to vice—"venus" representing lust and "Bacchus" representing drunkenness—even if he hurts himself by his refusal (ll. 22-24). Third, he cannot "crouch" to "worship" those who prey on the innocent like wolves among lambs—those who abuse their political and economic power (ll. 25-27). After this inventory of sins, the poet proceeds to qualify his earlier complaints by reaffirming his commitment to hold to honesty even at great personal cost (ll. 28-30). He continues with this theme of honesty and forthrightness, emphasizing that he cannot use "wiles" or "deceit" for his own advancement (ll. 31-33) and that he cannot use injustice for personal gain (ll. 34-36).
What follows is more satirical protest in a like vein, but this time the specifics are enumerated in much quicker succession. They still focus on the poet's obligation to hold to truth, emphasizing that he cannot pretend that vice is virtue, and that he will not live thrall to the whims of another, no matter how powerful (ll. 37-55). This is the central assertion in the poem, and it is crucial: The fact that he "cannot learn the way" to do the things he condemns frames his moral stance as involuntary and natural rather than as the outgrowth of misanthropy or pride. More examples follow, showing how he will not cloak vice with the "nearest virtue" (l. 61)—drunkenness as good fellowship, duplicity as eloquence, and so forth. The complaint rises to a crescendo with his refusal to grant the right of "tyranny" to the prince, reiterating yet again the phrase "I cannot" (l. 76).
The remainder of the poem provides the contrast, a declaration of independence from courtly life and a
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paean to the simple country life—hunting, hawking, study, and a kind of freedom (though he is constrained to admit the "clog" at his heel—the involuntary nature of his retirement to the country [l. 86]). Finally, he is in England—"Kent and Christendom" (l. 100)—a far better place than any glamorous but morally tainted foreign land such as France, Italy, or Spain.
The poem may be profitably read through three perspectives. The first is biographical. The poem shows influence from Wyatt's intimate knowledge of court life and his customary stance of disaffection and complaint. His relationship with the throne was rocky, so the relief shown in the poem at being far from the centers of power is unfeigned. The second perspective is closely related to the first. Wyatt's greatest contributions to English poetics came in his importation of Continental (French and Italian) verse forms and topics. This poem, like many of Wyatt's poems, is a translation, and it even adopts terza rima, an interlocking rhyming structure common in Italian Renaissance poetry and found in the Alamanni poem from which this poem is adapted.
The third perspective has to do with the genre of the poem. Generally, the satirist is seen as one whose piercing vision exposes folly and evil. Such is obviously a major concern of this poem, as it consists primarily in an inventory of the wrongs that our speaker will not engage in. The royal court was a ripe target for this kind of unflattering exposure, both by literary tradition and in reality. As we see in this poem, though, the poet's trustworthiness is just as crucial as his discovery of the alleged abuses. He must be seen as a credible voice and reliable critic—hence his repeated assertions that he is neither able to engage in court vices nor willing to excuse or explain them away. Since he is an honest, plain-speaking man who likes nothing more than to be left alone to hunt at his estate, the poet is compelled only to speak truth. This is neither the first nor the most prominent example of satire in English poetry, but it is a notable achievement if only for the penetrating voice of frustration we find in it.
See also court culture.
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