Richard Vallance.

December 2001
The Legacy of Francesco Petrarch and Sir Thomas Wyatt: an Historical Perspective

The Advent of the Petrarchan or "terza rima" Sonnet in English, ca. 1525.


Now that December is upon us, and the First Sunday in Advent has come and gone, I only deemed it fitting that I focus my attention this month on this very theme, "Advent" or from the Latin, "the coming."

I am referring, of course, to the advent of the lyrical poetic genre to the English language, the "sonnetto" (or Italian for "little song").

Sir Thomas Wyatt was instrumental in bringing this exquisite poetic form to fruition in English. While some of his sonnets may appear in retrospect to suffer from awkward rhythmic and metrical difficulties, we must bear in mind that he was struggling against enormous odds. The English language was then in high flux, having undergone vast changes under the overweening influence of French, since the time of Chaucer's Middle English.

One thing is certain: we should not make the mistake of foolishly attempting any scansion of Wyatt's sonnets according to the natural rhythm of modern English, as to do so patently violates the innate rhythmical flow of Renaissance English, which is quite another kettle of fish. That this is the case will be made apparent in my subsequent incursion into the metrics of his masterpiece of sonnetry,

Whoso List to Hunt

which, to my mind at least, he undubitably based on Francesco Petrarch's Sonnet 190 below. First, a bit of historical background on Petrarch himself is in order.

Francesco Petrarch,
the "Father of Renaissance Verse"

Francesco Petrarch, whose name in Italian is Francesco Petrarca, was born on July 20th., 1304, in Arezzo, Tuscany, Italy, and died the night of July 18th./19th., 1374, at Arquà, near Padua, Carrara. Italian scholar, poet and perhaps the World's first true "humanist", he addressed his lyrical poems, many of them sonnets, to one idealized Laura, whose name has become the watchword for "the belovèd" down through the intervening seven centuries. Petrarch was instrumental in giving birth to the "renasciamento" or "Renaissance" in Fourteenth Century Italy, long before it was to flourish in 16th. Century France and England. His naturally inquisitive mind and love of the ancient classical authors led him to travel widely. He was regarded as the greatest scholar of his age, and was honoured as the first ever Poet Laureate of the Renaissance.

Canzoniere -  Sonnetto 190 

Una candida cerva sopra l'erba 

verde m'apparve, con duo corna d'oro, 

fra due riviere, all'ombra d'un alloro, 

levando 'l sole a la stagione acerba. 

Era sua vista sí dolce superba, 

ch'i'lasciai per seguirla ogni lavoro: 

come l'avaro che 'n cercar tesoro 

con diletto l'affanno disacerba. 

 "Nessun mi tocchi - al bel collo d'intorno 

scritto avea di diamanti et di topazi - 

libera farmi al mio Cesare parve." 

Et era 'l sol già vòlto al mezzo giorno, 

gli occhi miei stanchi di mirar, non sazi, 

quand'io caddi ne l'acqua, et ella sparve. 

Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374)


Translation by Richard Vallance

A snow white doe in an emerald glade

To me appeared, with antlers soft of gold,

And leapt two streams, under a laurel's shade,

Near sunrise, in the winter's bitter cold.

To me she appeared wild treasure so fair

I was so distraught my eyes fell to stare,

As if, poor miser pursuing his gold,

I might find relief for grievance of old.

I spied on her neck, "No one dares touch me",

Graven in topaz and diamond stones,

"For Caesar wills I should always run free." 

The sun had ascended to zenith, and she   

was gone in a flash, lost in its pale gleam. 

While I still chased her, I fell in that stream! 

© by Richard Vallance, 2001

November 23rd., 2001

Sir Thomas Wyatt,
England's "Renaissance man"

Less than two centuries later, another sublimely "Renaissance man" would appear on the scene, Sir Thomas Wyatt, whose biography in certain respects reads as if it were an echo of Petrarch's. Wyatt was one of two pioneers in the adaptation of lyric poetry to Renaissance English. The other was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey.

Born around 1503, Wyatt was educated at Cambridge, and possibly also at Oxford. In 1525, after serving at court, Thomas Wyatt was hustled off on a diplomatic mission to France. Subsequently, in 1526-27, he was seconded to the Papal court, and visited Venice, Ferrara, Bologna and Florence. After returning to France in 1529-30, he remained abroad, and served as English Ambassador to the Emperor of Spain until 1539. He returned yet again to Paris in 1540. In the summer of 1542, in ill health he caught a fever, and died at Sherborne, on October 11th.

Historically unsubstantiated claims were made that as a youth, he was infatuated with Anne Boleyn, but she had "bigger fish to fry", having her glittering, irresistable eyes on none other than the person of the King, Henry VIII.

For further biographical information on the life and times of Thomas Wyatt, along with hyperlinks to his poetry, please consult:

SKETCHES OF THE LIFE of Sir Thomas Wyat A.D. 1503-1542

and, Sir Thomas Wyatt: Additional Sources (includes essays on Wyatt by Harold H. Childs and other scholars):

It is more than passingly apparent from his extensive peripetatic adventures that Wyatt spoke and read, not only English and French, but also Italian and Spanish, was undoubtedly familiar with the poetry of his contemporaries and forbears in England, Spain and, not least of all, in Italy, where he read Petrarch's "Canzoniere" or "Songs" in extenso, and then went on to translate them into English for the first time ever. And it was also from Petrarch's polished lyrical gems that he drew the inspiration for his own felicitous early experimentations with the sonnet form in his native English. It was, in fact, largely because of Wyatt's tireless efforts that English poetry found itself wholly rejuvenated for the first time since Chaucer.

Chaucer's own acolytes, Lydgate, Occleve and Hawes, were unable to mimic the exquisite rhythms of Chaucer's Middle English, no doubt because during the Fifteenth Century, English was in a continual maelstrom of flux, both in its rhythm and its accent, having been so heavily influenced by the influx, not only of French vocabulary, but even of the "French style", on what had once been a "Germanic" language. By 1450, after some 300 years of Norman rule, with French the language of the English Court, English was no longer a pure "Germanic" tongue, like German or Dutch, or any of the Scandanavian languages, but had become a "lingua insulata", an isolated or "island" language. Hence, its grammatical structure, while yet germanic at its root, had become so unalterably changed and grammatically simplified it no longer bore the remotest resemblance to its germanic cousins, not even in its pronunciation. And there lay the rub.

By the time of Wyatt, it is clear, as English pronunciation had already softened remarkably, the English liquids, "l" and "r" had attenuated to the point where they closely resembled Modern pronunciation. In fact, English liquids are now softer than those found in any other European languages, including, notwithstanding, the Romance, such as French.

The subtle fluidity of Italian lyrics was to serve as inspiration a new generation of poets, who would need to craft equally appealing, melodic English verse. Make no mistake about it, though. Theirs was no easy task. The natural rhythms of Italian and of English, or for that matter, of French and English, are so dissimilar that it would have been impossible for Wyatt to simply graft Italianate metrics onto the English sonnet form.

He had several obstacles to overcome: Italian was and is a much more "singing" language than is English; Italian nouns almost always end in vowels, which makes for very "easy" rhyming (although that can be "pericoloso", i.e. a danger in itself!) It is rather more difficult to achieve melodic rhyme in English, which is predominantly consonantal in its terminations. Yet, paradoxically, whenever rhyme is finely wrought in English, it can be most appealing.

Moroever, English sonneteers and Elizabethan poets in general quickly realized that the most suitable metre for English poetry was (as it still is) the good old iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter, taken at its most simplistic level, is meant to echo the natural rhythm of Renaissance English speech patterns.

It is important to bear in mind that at the time Wyatt was composing his sonnets, two characteristics distinguished the essential sound(s) of English poetry.

1. First and foremost, like their Italian forbears, and especially where Wyatt's sonnets were concerned, early English sonnets were actually songs, after the Italian word, "sonnetto" = "little song". They were meant to be sung at court, and they were, usually accompanied by the lute. Petrarch himself had been an accomplished musician, playing the lyre consummately, and was an exquisite singer, according to literary reports of his own contemporaries.

Wyatt also was intricately familiar with the intrinsically melodic rhythms of the Italian lyrics that pervaded all of Petrarch's beautifully polished sonnets. And he made every possible effort to reproduce in equally melodious English harmonics the exquisitely rounded sounds he heard when Petrarch's sonnets were played before him in Italy.

This is immediately apparent upon even the first recitation or "reading" aloud of his masterpiece, "Whoso List to Hunt".

2. Secondly, Renaissance English poses notable problems for modern readers. A large number of English words were pronounced with their stress in the same position as their French equivalents, from which they were derived. And that meant the stress often fell on the last syllable, whereas modern English stress is frequently recessive (with the stress falling back).

That this is so is more than apparent from even a cursory glance at some of Wyatt's rhymes. For instance, in our sonnet, we have the iambic pentameter lines rhyming:

	Draw from the Deer, but as she fleeth afore
	Fainting I follow.   I leave off therefore,

... where the stress on, "therefore" is on the second,
 not the first syllable, just as it would be in French,


Or, in yet another sonnet, Wyatt rhymes:

            "shall tangle me no more."  with "for to endeavour."

... where the stress in "endeavour" falls again on the
last syllable (as it would in French)

Or, yet again, in another sonnet:

	"With his hardiness taketh displeasure."

... where the final iambic stress falls on the last
syllable of "displeasure", just as it would, had
it been written in French, "déplaisir".

Likewise, in Renaissance English, the words, "colour" and "savour" were pronounced with the stress on the ultimate, as were their French counterparts, "couleur" and "saveur" (as were all English nouns ending in "our", such as, "favour").

Needless to say, Wyatt's poems, as well as those of Surrey and others of his day - and I venture to say, even those of William Shakespeare himself - abound with examples of the Renaissance pronunciation, which must at all times be clearly and fully accounted for in any scansion of the poetry of the Age. Otherwise, the poems simply end up sounding, well, awkward or clumsy. And there again lies the rub. This is precisely the reason why so many modern critics are so hasty to harp on the apparent lack of dexterity of Renaissance verse, labouring as they do under the sorely mistaken notion that the natural rhythm of Eliabethan poetry should have been somewhat akin to that of modern poetry.

Wyatt's Chef d'oeuvre of Sonnets,
"Whoso List to Hunt"

Integral text of, Whoso List to Hunt

The text of this edition is taken from:

The Poems of Sir Thomas Wiatt
edited by A.K. Foxwell, London, 1913.

NOTE: I should forewarn the reader against relying on Richard Tottel's "original" posthumous printing of Wyatt's sonnets in 1557, since that Sixteenth Century publisher, being apparently ill versed in Wyatt's rhythmical skills and versification techniques, took the unwarranted liberty of altering the wording of numerous verses.

Here is a link to a manuscript collection at the University of Michigan of Wyatt's poems according to Tottel:

Fortunately, a more accurate manuscript version was discovered by A.K. Foxwell, who went on to republish Wyatt's poetry in a much more faithful textual rendition in 1913. The Renaissance English text provided here is Foxwell's. I have included it for the obvious reason that it is best to read aloud the sonnet in its integral English text, rather than in its modern version first. This will make the rich flow and rhythm of the poem much more apparent right from the outset. Should you wish to investigate Foxwell's research further, I suggest the following link:

Who so list to hount : I know where is an hynd, 

But, as for me : helas [1], I may no more. 

The vayne travail [2] hath werid me so sore, 

I ame [9] of theim [3], that farthest cometh behinde 

Yet, may I by no means, my weried mynde 

Drawe from the Der; but as she fleeth afore 

Faynting I folowe. I leve of [4] therefore : 

Sins in a nett I seeke to hold the wynde [5]. 

Who list her hount : I put him out of dowbte [6] : [7]

As well as I : may spend his time in vain. 

And graven with Diamonds in letters plain : 

There is written, her faier [8] neck rounde abowte : 

Noli me tangere for Cesars I ame [9] 

And wylde for to hold : though I seme tame.

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)	

Pronunciation guide & other notes:

[1] helas = French, "hélas", and pronounced almost certainly exactly as in French, except for a very slight aspiration.
[2] "travail" = "hard work". This word seems to have already assumed its "modern" meaning, from the context of this verse.
[3] "theim" - pronounce the "ei" as in "aim", to parallel the pronunciation of "travail" in the preceding verse.
[4] Pronounce as "off" [5] Definitely pronounce like the verb "to wind" (a clock) as is clear from its rhyming with "hynde", "behinde" and "mynde". If it seems as though Wyatt is labouring his rhyme, we must bear in mind that his poem is based on Petrarch's, where you will find the same insistence on highly repetitive rhyme. In other words, Wyatt, who was just introducing the Petrarchan Sonnet into English for the first time ever, was attempting to adhere as closely as possible to its form in every way possible.
[6] "douwbte". The "b" is not pronounced. Although the Renaissance English still retains the French orthography, it is clear from this word's rhyme with "abouwt" that the "b" was already silent.
[7] Notice the spacing in the use of the colon. It is as in French. To this day, the colon is separated from the preceding word by a space in French. Even the punctuation in Wyatt's poetry betrays the overwhelming influence of French on English in his day and age.
[8] "faier" - there would have been a slight elision in the pronunciation of this word, making for a soft, barely audible, "silent e" transition between the "i" and the "r", attesting to the process of attenuation in English liquids (like "r"), which was already complete.
[9] "ame" - pronounce as, "aim", in order to rhyme with "tame".

NOTE: It is clear enough from the above considerations that vowels were more open in Renaissance English than they are today. Whereas we would use a short "a" or "i", Renaissance English would have had recourse to their long equivalents.

The same sonnet in modern English:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind, 

But, as for me: helas, I may no more. 

The vain travail hath wearied me so sore, 

 I am of them, that farthest cometh behind. 

 Yet may I by no means my wearied mind 

 Draw from the deer; but as she fleeth afore 

 Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore, 

 Since in a net I seek to hold the wind. 

 Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt, 

 As well as I, may spend his time in vain. 

 And, graven with Diamonds, in letters plain, 

 There is written, her fair neck round about: 

 Noli me tangere; for Caesar's I am, 

 And wild for to hold - though I seem tame.

Whoso = whoever.
list = desires.
hind = a female deer.
Noli me tangere = Do not touch me (Latin).
For Caesar's I am = I belong to the King (Henry VIII).

Wyatt, who is no-one's political fool, is apparently warning his King against Anne, whom he knows to be overly flirtatious and too free with her favours. The slightly acerbic tone of the final rhyming couplet seems almost to augur some impending doom Wyatt can't quite put his finger on (let alone lay his hands on!), as he ends by advising the King to be very cautious about the likes of Anne, who is, he dares to assert:

And wild for to hold - though I seem tame.

"Noli me tangere; for Caesar's I am,"

It is safe, I believe, to dismiss any claims that Wyatt's finest sonnets lack sophisitication and polish. Wyatt and Surrey were, in fact, often highly accomplished poets, who achieved what had once seemed the impossible. They brought English verse to a level of metrical, rhythmic and lyrical sophistication that was the hallmark, not only of the Petrarchan and Italianate poetry of the Fourteenth Century, but indeed of the ancient classic poets, such as Vergil and Horace.

Though a pastiche of Petrarch's Sonnet 190, "una candida cerva", this sonnet refers specifically to King Henry VIII himself as "Caesar". It goes practically without saying it was necessary for Wyatt to flatter his King and Lord, in light of the fact that Henry knew of Wyatt's infatuation with Anne, and must have always kept a wary eye out, even though Wyatt's desire for her had long since waned, and the poet had found himself a mistress of his own. For this "Caesar" was a jealous man indeed.

What is truly striking is the manner in which first Petrarch and then Ronsard, du Bellay and the poets of "la Pléiade" in France, and finally the Elizabethans, such as Wyatt himself, so deftly lure the reader, into taking sides with the personages and personal positions assumed both by the poet himself and his subject(s), as "the speaker" addresses himself to "you." From this perspective, we can all too easily associate that "white hind" of "Whoso list to hunt" with Anne Boleyn.

This is Wyatt's rather embarrassing, even precarious, dilemma vis-à-vis Henry's ever-watchful eye. Hence, the message on the deer's collar:

"Noli me tangere; for Caesar's I am"

and Caesar's I shall remain, untouchable, unattainable, just as Petrarch's Laura was always to remain.

If you are interested in purchasing books about Thomas Wyatt, some of them featuring his poetry, check out the Luminarium Book Store at:

© by Richard Vallance, 2001

November 26th., 2001

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