Refreshing Counterpoint to Typical Tudor Studies

Winnipeg Free Press, February 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Refreshing Counterpoint to Typical Tudor Studies


FIVE centuries after Henry VIII's death in 1547, novels, biographies, histories and films on England's famous serial monogamist, his six wives and the tumultuous years of the English Reformation still find new readers and viewers.

British biographer Nicola Shulman takes readers through the life and times of poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) in her refreshing counterpoint to typical books on Tudor politics and religion.

Some references to Wyatt can be found in Tudor studies by historians Allison Weir, John Guy and David Starkey, but he is relegated to a minor role.

Wyatt's father was a key figure in the Tudor assent to power, and the younger Wyatt spent his life in Henry VIII's elite inner circle. He is best known for creating the English sonnet and was the most acclaimed poet of his era.

This biography revolves around Wyatt's love for Anne Boleyn. It is not certain if Wyatt and Boleyn, who was Henry's second wife, were lovers, but scholars assert several of his poems were written about her before and after her execution.

Shulman's title comes from a plaintive love poem scholar's believe Wyatt wrote for Boleyn, in 1527: "Graven in diamonds with letters plain, / There is written her fair neck round about: / Do not touch me, / Caesar's, I am.

She married Henry VIII in 1533. Boleyn, Shulman believes, rejected Wyatt because he was married and an admitted adulterer (but "not abominable" Wyatt claims). However, the power-seeking Boleyn family would never reject a king for a poet.

Scholars endlessly debate the meaning of Wyatt's courtly love poetry. He was a master of dissembling and, as Shulman discusses, his poems were created for a small circle of people in the Tudor court. Only they could untangle the metaphorical from the literal meaning of the poem, and the meaning changed from person to person depending on how it was presented.

As Hilary Mantel has Thomas Cromwell say in her Booker Prize-winning novel Bring up the Bodies, "There are codes so subtle (in Wyatt's poems) that they change their meaning in half a line, or in a syllable, or in a pause, a caesura. …

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