Thomas Wyatt’s Poetry Analysis


Thomas Wyatt Sketch by Hans Holbein.
Thomas Wyatt Sketch by Hans Holbein.

‘Whoso List to Hunt’ and ‘Sometime I Fled the Fire’

In this post, I will analyse two of Wyatt’s poems supposedly pertaining to Anne Boleyn, Whoso List to Hunt and Sometime I Fled the Fire. Later posts will examine They Flee From Me, And Wilt Thou Leave Me Thus and Circa Regna Tonat.

Whoso List to Hunt
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 come 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 Sithens 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.

Stephen Greenblatt claims that Whoso List to Hunt is suspended between transcendentalism and cynicism.[i] What this means is that it is almost supernatural and unbelievable but also distrustful, two things which do not really go together. Comparing Wyatt’s own chase of Anne Boleyn to a deer hunt shows how unruly Anne was, and how much she could change her mind. Wyatt claims that she has ‘wearied me so sore’, that he is no longer up to the chase because she has exhausted him, and then set her sights higher. Spending his time in vain suggests that his case is hopeless and that, no matter what they had shared in the past, his time with Anne is over. Wyatt recognises at the beginning that Anne had other suitors, and although she had shown favour to Wyatt, she soon moved onto another until Wyatt was merely in the background. Noli me tangere is Latin meaning ‘Do not touch me’, suggesting that Anne sees herself as above Wyatt, and wishes him to relinquish his hold over her, and any claim on her. The reference to Caesar tells the reader that Anne is already claimed by a higher person that Wyatt, even before he gave up on her. The last line is particularly interesting, given what we know of Anne Boleyn. Greenblatt suggests that it is a reversal of expectations: it subverts innocence and self-righteousness.[ii] From a distance it probably seemed that Anne was relatively ‘tame’, obeying her father in everything. However, from close up, Anne had her own views and was not afraid to express them, probably seen as unusual and ‘wild’ for the times in which she lived.

Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.
Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.

Sometime I Fled the Fire
Sometime I fled the fire that me brent
By sea, by land, by water, and by wind,
And now I follow the coals that be quent
From Dover to Calais, against my mind.
Lo, how desire is both sprung and spent!
And he may see that whilom was so blind,
And all his labour now he laugh to scorn,
Meshed in the briers that erst was all too-torn.

The reader can guess the time at which this short poem of Wyatt’s was written. The line ‘from Dover to Calais’ suggests it was around the time of the France trip in 1532 where Anne Boleyn accompanied Henry VIII to France for a meeting. However, this could also be written with hindsight. It could also be showing Wyatt’s own flight to the continent to get away from Anne and Henry during their courtship. The latter is added to by the second line ‘by sea, by land, by water, and by wind’, suggesting that Wyatt was running by whatever means possible to escape his own jealousy at Anne’s relationship with the King, or his disgust at the divorce. Possibly at this point Wyatt’s desire for Anne had ebbed, as his desire is said to be ‘sprung and spent’. Perhaps through the divorce he had seen the true Anne Boleyn: how ambitious and ruthless she could be in pursuit of what she wanted. ‘Whilom’ means ‘former’ or ‘formerly’. This line is probably the most interesting in the poem because it suggests that Wyatt knew something about Anne, which Henry did not. It adds fuel to the fire of the rumours of an affair between Wyatt and Anne – what could he have known that made Henry blind? It could have just been the reality of Anne, which soon irritated Henry, or it could have been that the story of Wyatt telling Henry of Anne’s unworthiness to be Queen had some truth in it.

[i] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) p. 146
[ii] Ibid, p. 149

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