Courtly Love: The Themes Of Love And Gender In The Sonnets Of Sir Thomas Wyatt

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This assignment seeks to comprehend the various ways in which Sir Thomas Wyatt explores the themes of love and gender in his sonnets. Born in 1503, at Allington Castle in Kent, England, Sir Thomas Wyatt is chiefly remembered for his songs and his introduction of the sonnet and Terza Rima into English poetry. Wyatt, like his father before him, worked in the court of Henry VIII. He was an exceptional musician and was known for his skill in jousting and languages.

His positions as esquire of the king’s body and clerk of the king’s jewels won him enough trust of the king to begin his diplomatic career with missions to France and Rome. Here, he learnt what later had profound influence on his literary life – French and Italian prosody. During these years only, Wyatt became acquainted with Anne Boleyn, the mistress and to-be-wife of Henry VIII, the king of England. Anecdotal evidence and suggestions in his poems paint Sir Wyatt as the lover of Anne Boleyn, whose affections he is trying to gain in the sonnet ‘Whoso List to Hunt, I Know where is an Hind’. She was investigated for high treason in April 1536 by Henry VIII and was arrested.

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One can divide Wyatt’s works into two groups: the sonnets, songs, and lyric poems treating love; and the satires and the penitential psalms. The lyrics of his songs were loosely based on the Petrarchan sonnet, named after Francesco Petraca, who wrote about his unrequited love for a woman named Laura.

The Petrarchan sonnet deals with the subject matter of ideal love and the soul-crushing agony of unfulfilled desire. A major characteristic trait of this type of sonnet is the blazon, which can be either elaborate praise for the subject or excessive blame or scorn towards him/her. In most poems, the former is the case. Moreover, Petrarchan sonnets make extended use of metaphor and simile to describe the subject’s beauty or express the narrator’s feelings. Furthermore, they have their own rhyme scheme and structure. They have two stanzas: an octave, which sets up a question, and a sestet, that attempts to answer it. Petrarchan sonnets are always 14 lines total, and they are written in iambic pentameter, which features lines of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.

Wyatt’s sonnets deal with courtly love and ill-treatment at the hands of his lovers. Courtly love was an idea of love that emphasized nobility and chivalry, wherein a young man, who may be a peasant or even a king, falls in love with an aristocrat lady and tries to make himself worthy of her by taking up audacious tasks or writing love songs and poems to woo her.

When one tries to explore the dimensions of love and gender in the sonnets ‘Whoso List to Hunt, I Know where is an Hind’ and ‘They Flee From Me’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt, it can be asserted that in a typical Petrarchan sonnet, love couldn’t coexist in marriage and often remain largely unfulfilled. These sonnets are a male discourse of desire, where the beloved is perceived as an object to be possessed rather than a desiring agent in her own right. They trace the trajectory of competing claims of the spiritual and the erotic on the male lover and throw light on his moral dilemmas and eventual ascent from physical pleasure to divine fulfillment with the beloved being simultaneously the trigger for moral crisis and the source of its resolution. Solipsism, self-delusion and primarily, cancellation of spiritual progress are typical moral dangers that confront a male lover in pursuit of his beloved.

Wyatt’s ‘Whoso List to Hunt, I Know where is an Hind’ is a translation of Petrarch ‘Una Candida Cerva’, a sonnet in which the speaker comes into an ethereal dream encounter with a golden doe. In the sonnet, Wyatt repeatedly emphasizes on the need of an anchor, which signifies that amatory issues and anxieties about the politics in the court had become interchangeable.

In historical context, new fears of competitive spirits and anxiety took over when the members of influential middle class rose to power as a consequence of the transformation of England from a medieval state that was premised upon feudal obligations and interpersonal ties towards a bureaucratic state. In the sonnet, the speaker is yearning for establishing some form of stability in a rapidly transitioning world. The poem is full of hints that love is a public and not a completely private pursuit, because of the implied presence of Caesar. The entire sonnet is dramatization of self.

The extended metaphor of “Whoso List to Hunt” lays down strict roles to the speaker and to the woman he pursues: his job is to conquer, while her job is to flee. Wyatt’s poem doesn’t challenge gender roles within his society. Instead it strengthens them: the speaker’s contrast of love to a hunt dramatically restricts the possibilities for women, who are reduced to the status of animals or even property. The woman whom the speaker pursues so madly doesn’t have much opportunity to shape the dynamics of their encounter—or, indeed, to refuse that encounter altogether. Her choices are, metaphorically at least, to flee or be killed. For the speaker, then, men take an active role and women a passive role in relationships: that of pursuer and pursued. Within these constraints, the woman finds a kind of power in refusing to be caught. She eludes the speaker with such skill that he is compelled to give up the hunt. Though she is still acting within a role that he creates for her, she nonetheless finds a way to shape their dynamic so that she can have some control over it.

The speaker of “Whoso List to Hunt” pursues his “hind” with substantial energy and devotion. Indeed, he does so even though he knows that the task is futile. While he describes his hunt as a painful and frustrating experience, he nonetheless seems to derive real gratification from the act of pursuing his beloved. The speaker thus offers a complex, ambivalent portrait of love. For him, love is a matter of obsession: a fixation sustained by unhealthy devotion. For this speaker, part of the thrill of love lies in the chase itself, even though that chase can lead only to frustration.

In the sonnet, ‘They Flee From Me’, the constant shunting between ‘she’ and ‘they’ is typical of disguises of convention, but also adds to the sustained tension between the personal and the impersonal. The portrayal of the beloved undergoes a series of metamorphosis through the course of the poem. According to the male persona, the mistress is fickle and only promised a fleeting form of satiation. The entire poem becomes a dramatization of how the lover’s potential sources of comfort are shut as his mind is continuously warring between contraries.

On one hand, it appears like a nostalgic yearning by a lover who was cruelly deserted by his beloved. But on the other hand, the speaker’s credibility is also undermined because he confesses that he has had many such sexual experiences. Having opened the poem by considering the woman as a wild deer, the lover ends by ridiculing the woman for having remained wild and at liberty. He has failed to domesticate her, as one might very likely fail to domesticate real wild animals.

One might reasonably question the lover who thinks of his beloved in such terms. The lover fails to realize that he is reprimanding the woman for acting naturally. If indeed she has come to him freely, and if he has enjoyed her free expression of sexual desires, his disdain towards her for enjoying the freedom to continue to seek the objects of her desire seems evidently inappropriate. If there is any truth to the metaphor of the deer with which he began, then the lover fails to see that any attempt to domesticate such a creature will ultimately be foiled by its natural desire to remain wild. Yet the complexity of this deeply human relationship finally contradicts the metaphor.

Concluding about these legendary works of Sir Thomas Wyatt, it can be said that the most remarkable aspect of Wyatt’s poetry is the way he dramatizes life at court, in a short poem, using language, in a direct, muscular way that was largely new in English verse. The poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt is a rare thing: both of interest from a historical perspective and genuinely innovative and stylistically accomplished.


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