Sir Thomas Wyatt – Rime 190

[Literature – Poem]

What I know of Kent doesn’t lend itself to the open deer parks that I’m used to in the north, but it could have been very different five hundred years ago.  I’ve always placed Thomas Wyatt’s poem being written under a tree in the deer park by Hever Castle, I should have checked if such a placed existed, written between Anne kissing Thomas affectionately on the cheek before she goes off to see Henry who is riding in over the drawbridge.

Knowing the end, I find the opening phrase, ‘Who so list to hunt’, slightly wistful.  Perhaps it’s the soft sounds of the words, the listlessness of list, a sense of weariness in the sentiment.  What is playing out here is a subplot in one of the most dramatic of English love stories, for Henry is King Henry VIII, which makes Anne his soon-to-be second wife, and Sir Thomas Wyatt’s pursuit a fruitless attempt in the face of such power and prestige.

But lest you fear that Sir Thomas is skirting close to discovery, rest assured that he got away with it.  The poem cannot be a true evocation of his feelings, as it’s really simply a translation and the purpose s not to dissemble about a forbidden love, but to play with the form of the sonnet, newly introduced to English and perfectly suited to show off the wit and erudition of the courtier poets.  How the English have tackled the sonnet down the ages can be instructive as a rack that never quite disappears and Sir Thomas is in the vanguard of making it an English form as much as Italian.  190 is an honest translation from Petrarch’s original.

That’s how Sir Thomas got away with it, but it’s not the whole truth.  There is another reading of the opening lines in which the poet is calling his mates to the hunt, the other primary occupation of the courtier poet, and kings.  This is making the poem personal, adding layers to Petrarch in the way of the Tudor fashion for the cryptic, the symbolic.  The deer has a collar studded with a motto in diamonds ‘for Caesars I am’ and there could be no confusion who Caesar is, for this is not a Roman deer, and in Tudor England only one man could fulfil that position.

Yet this poem is more than a clever device, a coded love letter.  It’s a sigh of regret, a vision of a particular point in history from a particular strata of society that echoes unrequited love down the ages, permeated with awareness.  Whether you’d find Sir Thomas in the rose garden at Hever watching his beloved over the moat, it’s a scenario to conjure, deer park or no.

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