History of the English Sonnet: Wyatt and Surrey…with a fringe.

Poetry, like most art, is an expression of freedom and the quest for some form of perfection. In any discussion comparing the poetry of Wyatt and Surrey, it’s important to note that “Thomas Wyatt made his career in the shifting, dangerous currents of the Renaissance courts, and court culture, with its power struggles, sexual intrigues, and sophisticated tastes” (Greenblatt 646). Wyatt lived “in the orbit of the ruthless, unpredictable Henry VII” (647). This risk-heavy environment probably goes some distance toward explaining not just Wyatt’s willingness to take creative risks, but his personality, as he sought to bring the sonnet to the forefront of literary expression in England. Previously a part of Charles V’s court, under Henry VII he spent some time in the king’s favorite site of political punishment, the Tower of London, along with contemporaries such as Thomas More. Whether out of political rivalries or paranoid jealousies, Hateful Hank was always imprisoning someone for something! In Wyatt’s case he was imprisoned because Henry suspected him of having an affair with queen Ann Boleyn, who was an ambitious man-eater and the subject of many mens’ passions and resentments. As a child, Wyatt was said to have killed his father’s pet lion with a rapier, and thus Henry predicted he “would tame lions” (Claire par. 3). So it’s not surprising that the emotional and perhaps impulsive Wyatt was also a poetical firebrand. Wyatt took the Petrarchan form, with its “argument, observation, question, or some other answerable charge in the octave” (Poetic Form: Sonnet, par. 2) and molded it to fit his own “deliberately rough, vigorous, and expressive metrical practice” (Greenblatt 648). His poems did survive, however, “in the Egerton Manuscript…in Wyatt’s own hand and corrections” so his form was clearly respected by important scribes and contemporaries. Wyatt’s poems with their crude, rough style, were an expression of his frustrations toward women and the political regime in which he lived, as is demonstrated in the extended metaphor, or conceit, of love as war. If he did, as Claire writes, “fall in love with Anne Boleyn” (par. 4) his pining but angry version of Rima 140 takes on genuine Petrarchan argument-counterargument significance. Wyatt’s own passion for Anne, and even his own life, must take second place to loyalty to England, his true mistress, and Henry, her sovereign king. Known for his use of dualisms in his poetry, for Wyatt longing for Anne is a form of unrequited and painful love, of tormented “patience,” but nationalist concerns are a worthier reason for faithfulness and sacrifice:

She who teaches us to love and to be patient, and wishes my

great desire, my kindled hope, to be reined in by reason, shame,

and reverence, at our boldness is angry with herself.

Wherefore Love flees terrified to my heart, abandoning his

every enterprise, and weeps and trembled, there he hides and no

more appears outside.


What can I do, when my lord is afraid, except stay with him until

the last hour? For he makes a good end who dies loving well. (Wyatt Lines 7-11)


I think of this poem not so much as crude or rough, but actually extremely emotive and a demonstration of Wyatt’s fondness for representing “the ‘doubleness’ of a fickle mistress or the instability of fortune” in his work (Greenblatt 647). He seems to be arguing with his own heart, and with the woman who tempts him away from his king and country. This results in a palpably tortured sonnet reflective of the experimentation that would eventually result in the Shakespearean sonnet, and it seems that Wyatt used this transitional period and evolving form to express his political and creative angst on a professional level, and “disillusionment and complaint” on a personal one (647).

Earl of Surrey’s story is as tumultuous as Wyatt’s, with “the axe that decapitated” him “at the age of thirty…hanging over his head for much of his life” (Greenblatt 661). In adopting a “strange meter” in the Petrarchan poetry he loved, he brought the sonnet closer to the form now considered Shakespearean. His blending of Petrarchan sonnet form with images from Greek poetry like the Aenid produced a distinctly rhymed, even musical, and highly dramatized flavor that employed his “new sonnet form” as “a savage attack” in defense of warrior masculinity. His rewrite of Rima 140 employs distinctly warlike imagery that calls for courage and nationalism over love for a fickle woman. He, like Wyatt, favors steadfastness to the king. Like Wyatt, he welcomes death if it is the result of faithfulness to his male commander-in-chief:


But she that taught me love and suffer pain,

My doubtful hope and eke my hot desire

With shamefast look to shadow and refrain,

Her smiling face converteth straight to ire.

And coward Love then to the heart apace

Taketh his flight where he doth lurk and plain,

His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.

For my lord’s guilt thus faultless bide I pain,

Yet from my lord shall not my foot remove:

Sweet is the death that taketh end my love. (Surrey 5-15)


While the Elizabethan era brought poetry full circle into Shakespeare’s famous form, Spenser and Milton each made adaptations as well. Poetry became still more romantic, lyrical, and even whimsical. To this end, meter and rhyme were employed as they had been by Surrey, but through longer works that demanded greater “sonnetic stamina,” if you will. One could argue these changes opened up poetry to be more musical in tone, and inspiring greater attention, introspection and scholarship in order to understand. Poetry had become a full-blown profession, catching the eye of wealthy patrons and legacy-seeking royals. Milton later “freed the sonnet from its typical incarnation in a sequence of sonnets” and “often expressed interior, self-directed concerns” of a deeply religious and existential nature (“Poetic Form” par. 6). In Milton’s work, poetry took on an epic form again, surely inspired by Surrey’s innovations and use of mythological allusions. Shakespeare married perfect meter, rhyme, and classical imagery to produce powerful romantic and satirical sonnets that could start with a woman sounding like a homely man, but ending up as a goddess in the eyes of her lover.  Poems seemingly about a woman were humorous homages to handsome young castrati with the voices of angels. His methods produced poetry that was appropriately perfect for theatre, but Spenser also introduced full-blown fantasy and mythological elements into his sonnets even as “he implicitly reorganized the Shakespearean into couplets, reminiscent of Petrarchan” (“Poetic Form” par. 7) poetry again.

As Solomon said in so many words, there is nothing new under the sun, and similarly the sonnet seemed to trace its own path around that flaming orb to come full circle, yet always improved and more effective. In each of the above poets’ cases, the sonnet was reformed and adapted for the purpose of expressing creative and political independence, nationalistic loyalties or complaints, romantic expression, religious beliefs and existential passions…to express at a deeper level what it means to be human, to exist, and to survive and thrive in their unique times and circumstances. Each strove to be true to himself and leave a record to others of his purpose and passions. To say one poet or one sonnet form is better than the other would be to say oranges are better than apples, while ignoring the fact that ambrosia is not ambrosia without clementines and cherries in it as well. And don’t even get me started about how I feel about Dr. Seuss (epic), walnuts (hate ’em) and marshmallows (love ’em). In poetry and fruit salad, to pick out unfavorites is to alter a recipe entirely, and end up with something less than one started with. I don’t know about you, in dessert as in sonnets, I believe it’s best to simply nod politely, wait for the host to turn his head and then carefully spit your unfavorites into your napkin. Your tastebuds might suffer momentarily, but your integrity and social status will remain intact, and as a bonus it won’t cost you anything — at least not much — above the neck.


Works cited:

Claire. “Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder – The Anne Boleyn Files.” The Anne Boleyn Files. WordPress, 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 9 Oct.2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York:Norton, 2012. Print.

“Poetic Form: Sonnet.” Poets. Academy of American Poets, 26 Sept. 2004. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.


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