MA English Poetry: Thomas Wyatt’s contribution as a sonneteer in Elizabethan Age

Wyatt was the first English poet to introduce and handle sonnet into English literature. Before him, there was nothing to guide him in the field of sonnet writing. He had to depend solely on his intellect and Italian resources. His was a pioneering attempt to introduce sonnet. The existing forms of the lyric were suitable only for composing songs. He felt the need for a medium for self-expression which could be more sophisticated having greater appeal to the educated mind. There is very large agreement among the critics that Wyatt’s sonnets lack intrinsic merits and are the worst part of his poetry. Only three critics maintain that some of his sonnets do possess merit and are of the opinion that critics like Tillyard and C.S. Lewis have not been fair to Wyatt. They maintain that Wyatt has not made any considerable contribution to sonnets. Unlike their views, J.W. Lever says:

“He contributed significantly to the Elizabethan poetry”

C.S. Lewis has called the age of Wyatt as Drab Age of English Poetry rather dead whose poetic structure was infused by the skillful merits of Thomas Wyatt. He has embodied two elements: a native and foreign, a quality lacking in most Elizabethan poets. Wyatt wrote in all 31 sonnets, out of which, the first 19 are, by and large, translations from the Italian. These poems follow the originals in all poetic characteristics except for a few subtle differences. The most prominent difference is that they end in a couplet, not to found in Patriarch or his imitators. The couplet gave a logical ending to his sonnet and changed the balance and rhyme of the poem. Wyatt also introduced some other metrical technical changes. The majority of lines are decasyllabic while the lines in Italian sonnets are nine syllables. In some sonnets, he attempted to follow the original he translated. His careful patterning of the translation, word for word and stress by stress cleared the way for the emergence of a contemporary English style. From Patriarch, he translated the following poem:

“The long love that in my thought I harbor/ And in mine heart does keep his residence”

Wyatt soon realized that Italian versification could not be transferred to English. J.W. Lever remarks, “The texture of English weakened intolerably the delicate Italian rhymes”. He kept experimenting with the originals and modified them lightly and greatly to come up with a style most suited to his native language. As the sonnet evolved in the hands of Wyatt, two more changes occurred in the sonnet form. The octave came to be divided into clear-cut quatrains. The sestet had already been divided into two parts, one of four lines and the second of the final couplet. He began to ridicule the cult of adulation for the sonnet heroine. As he furthered more translations, he began to introduce his own attitude of skepticism towards women, as evident from the following sonnet:

“Who so list to hunt? I know where is a hind!/But as for me, alas! I have may no more”

The sonnet voices the lover surrender. His pursuit, long and tedious, has brought to the conclusion that his mistress is incapable of love with life-long companionship. He compares her to a female deer. For beauty, the hind is matchless and irresistibly tempting but it fails to understand what love is. These sentiments are quite the opposite of those expressed by Petrarch. With this sonnet, Wyatt’s experimentation with the sonnet form comes to an end. He ceases to be a translator and becomes almost original, though he makes Petrarchan sonnet as the basis of his own. His own vigorous personality transformed the Petrarchan medium and founded a new form consisting of three quatrains of decasyllables and the final couplet. Form and content interpenetrated closely reflecting a view of life almost directly antithetical to that of Petrarch as in:

“Once I am sure you will, or no: and if you will,/ Then leave your bourds”

The poet is restless and wants a quick reply but he is not imposing any restriction on her. If she refuses, she may well go and find another man. The two sonnets “whoso list to hunt” and “Farewell love” reflect Wyatt’s self-assurance and technical control. The first one is based on Petrarchan sonnet, but the second one is original. A critic has summed up the achievement of Wyatt in the sonnet in the following words: ‘We may see his work into three periods: the early phase of a suitable medium, the middle-period of mature love sonnets and the final phase of public life in which his interest for love declined and he chose social topics as themes of his personal poetry’. He was true poet and man of his age and responded vigorously to his age. He experienced many ups and downs in his political career. He loved truth and did not compromise with his self-respect. It was this attitude that ultimately enabled him to discard the romantic notion of love that the lover should be true to the beloved despite her disdain. He rejected this medieval concept of courtly love and created his own concept of love. However, he showed that Petrarchan form of sonnet could be modified to five expressions to complex personal experience and could be used to the tradition of his own nation. This achievement of his has entitled him to be one of the pioneers of Elizabethan poetry.

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