Alastair Fowler reviews a massive new biography of the 16th century poet and ambassador, Thomas Wyatt, a man he describes as “hard, brilliant, arrogant, dangerous, quarrelsome, given to violent rages, sexist; yet sexually attractive, contemptuous, secretive, loyal to the king but also (usually) to friends.” Why this complex figure matters for English literary history:
Wyatt certainly reformed English poetry. In George Puttenham’s Art of English Poesie (1589), Wyatt and Surrey figure as “the two chief lanterns of light to all others who have since employed their pens upon English poesy . . . in all imitating very naturally and studiously their master Francis Petrarch”. But Petrarch was an alien genius, whom Wyatt seldom imitated very closely. Did he truly reform English poetry in the direction of regularity? In metre “sweet and well-proportioned”? Not if modern critics such as H. A. Mason are to be believed. For [biographer Susan] Brigden, Wyatt’s claim as a reformer of poetry mainly rests on his introducing the Renaissance sonnet, classical epigram and Horatian epistle. This is just, but may miss some of Wyatt’s originality.
Although Wyatt’s oeuvre is uneven, his poems at their best achieve searingly honest expressions of intense experience. He gradually changed English poetry by this seriousness, bringing his overwhelming passions into equilibrium with a counterweight of fully considered words. No English predecessor had managed to sustain self-examination so far: it is his only Petrarchan quality. One might almost say Wyatt owed some of his poetic achievement to an affliction of guilt.