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by (Sir) Thomas Wyatt (1503-42)
Tagus, farewell, that westward with thy streams
Turns up the grains of gold already tried,
With spur and sail for I go to seek the Thames
Gainward the sun that showeth her wealthy pride
And to the town which Brutus sought by dreams
Like bended moon doth lend her lusty side.
My kind, my country, alone for whom I live,
Of mighty love the wings for this me give.
Sir Thomas Wyatt was an example of that most endangered of species: courtier to, and confidant of, King Henry VIII. His father, Henry Wyatt, had allied himself with the Lancastrian faction during the Wars of the Roses and been rewarded by his namesake, Henry Tudor, with a knighthood and a place on the Privy Council upon his succession as Henry VII. Thomas was born at Allington castle in Kent and - probably - graduated with an MA from St. John's, Cambridge, in 1520. He was married around this time to Elizabeth Brooke who was to provide him with two children before their separation, on the grounds of her adultery - which may account for the rueful tone of much of his love poetry. He also, according to legend, enjoyed a dalliance with the future queen, Anne Boleyn, and may even have warned his monarch against her.
As a young man, Wyatt was involved in diplomatic missions to Paris and to Italy (where he was captured and ransomed by Spanish troops who were occupying Rome). He seems to have escaped, and upon his return to England published a number of his translations from Plutarch in 1528 (the only examples of his work to be printed in his lifetime). After a two year assignment as High Marshal of Calais he was gaoled in the Fleet prison (for killing a member of the London Guard) in 1534 and, again, in the Tower from May, 1536 (for six weeks) most likely in connection with the fall and disgrace of Queen Anne.
Royal disfavour was brief. Wyatt profited from the confiscation of church lands at the Dissolution and, newly knighted, was sent to be English ambassador to the Spanish court of the Emperor Charles V - who had been antagonised by the English King's divorce from his aunt, Katherine of Aragon. Sir Thomas's mission seems to have been accorded a success and in the poem reproduced above we see him, in the June of 1539, allowing himself, perhaps, some wistful ambivalence at the news of his recall to England.
'Tagus, farewell' (untitled) survives in a leather-bound notebook which Wyatt kept between 1537 and 1542. This contains over a hundred of his poems in various hands (together with a number by the earl of Surrey), plus drafts of letters and mathematical computations. This particular poem was written by Wyatt himself, in a spidery script, and we can see several amendments - for instance the 'which' in line 5 and the 'alone' of line 7 are corrections (the original was 'only alone'). The Iberian river Tagus was celebrated for the resemblance of its sandy bed to gold (by, amongst others, Chaucer and John Skelton). The 'Brutus' alluded to is not the Roman regicide but rather a Trojan descendent of Aeneas of Troy, who had dreamt that he would establish a kingdom in Albion and was said, by some, to have founded London. 'Gainward the sun' refers to the fact that the Thames, unlike the Tagus, flows eastwards. 'Bended moon' is a nod towards the crescent-like kink in the Thames.
The works of Sir Thomas Wyatt were not available to a general English readership until fifteen years after his death, when they appeared in Songs and Sonnettes, 'written by the ryght honourable Lorde Henry Haward Late Earle of Surrey', and other, (better known as Tottel's Miscellany, published in 1557). This work introduced to the Tudors something of the flavour of the Italianate poets, alongside various 'new' forms such as the sonnet, the ottava rima, the terza rima and iambic pentameter. It would prove enormously influential to the Elizabethans, in particular writers such as Spenser, Marlowe and Shakespeare. Due to an error in their respective chronologies, it was long believed that Wyatt was merely a camp-follower of the earl of Surrey, but in the twentieth century the primacy of Wyatt's poetic legacy became fully established. Tottel's Miscellany fails to attribute the verse to its true author and entitles it 'Of his returne from Spaine'.
Wyatt may have been wise to view his return with ambivalence. In 1540 the fall of his friend and patron, Thomas Cromwell, signalled a new period of danger, and early 1541 would see him, once more, languishing in the Tower - on trumped-up charges of treason. Again the mercurial king would release him and grant him new and profitable offices. In early October, 1542, an emissary from Charles V arrived at Falmouth and Wyatt was dispatched, post-haste, to meet him. The arduous journey in inclement weather led to the onset of a fever (probably pneumonia) from which the poet was to expire, at Sherbourne, Devon, on the eleventh of that month.
Baldi, S., Sir Thomas Wyatt, Longmans (1961)
Scott, H. (ed), Selected Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Carcanet (1996)
Thomson, P., Sir Thomas Wyatt and His background, Routledge (1964)
Kevin Saving © 2008