How to Keep a Head

Article excerpt

GRAVEN WITH DIAMONDS by Nicola Shulman Short Books, Pounds 20, 378pp Pounds 18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

When I first began to read poetry seriously at school, "practical criticism" still held sway. This approach promoted the idea of an unmediated dialogue between the reader and the text - a sort of naked encounter session, free from the deceiving clothes of context. And it so happened that one of the poems stripped from its history that I enjoyed most delivered the electrifying delight of dshabill. A masterpiece of petulant erotic longing (hence, perhaps, its allure for teenage readers), this lyric by Sir Thomas Wyatt begins "They flee from me that sometime did me seek". It goes on to recall a rejected lover's tryst with a fickle lady who "When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall/ And she caught me in her arms long and small/ Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,/ And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'"

Not only yearning youngsters will fall for Wyatt (1503-1542) in this mood. Many of his 170-odd authenticated poems (the attribution wars still rumble) dance us through the minefield - sexual, political and religious - of Henry VIII's court with an elusive melancholy charm that never drops the veil of mystery. Like the mocking minxes it evokes, who themselves slip between stock poetic silhouettes and warm-blooded womanhood, Wyatt's poetry teases, seduces, succumbs, changes its mind - and often flees. For a novice reader denied the right even to ask about the world of history and biography behind this soft-focus screen of desire and danger, the exposure proved frustrating on several levels.

Now Nicola Shulman has written the book that I craved then. Although modern editors aplenty have pored over Wyatt's work, she properly maintains that this scholarly searchlight tends to blind lay readers and obscure the verse, leaving "a legacy of under- appreciation". No longer: Graven with Diamonds is one of the most persuasive and pleasurable accounts of English Renaissance poetry to appear from a general publisher in years. Moreover, as a finely- shaded portrait of the writer as a man of power "whose whole creative life was spent in the intertidal strand where realpolitik and poetry mingle", it braids text and context into an enriching feedback loop that proves the sheer impracticality of "practical criticism".

Shulman's subtitle - "the many lives of Thomas Wyatt: courtier, poet, assassin, spy - misleadingly suggests a cloak-and-codpiece potboiler for fans of TV's The Tudors. Yet she chooses targets and themes with something of her subject's high-born hauteur. Shulman fixes a shrewd and illuminating gaze on the gnomic love lyrics that Wyatt wrote for narrow circulation at Henry's court in the 1520s and 1530s, a "closed, incestuous coterie" that would "rarely have exceeded 100 key courtiers". Wyatt's poems saw print only posthumously, in 1557. Subtle and ingenious, this study presents them as form of elite samizdat, or even as "the Facebook of the Tudor court"; close-packed bomblets of innuendo and insinuation designed for a febrile time and place when "poetry was the hot vehicle for gossip and rumour". …