Among Tyrants

Thomas Wyatt, the first great poet of totalitarianism, speaks to the anxieties of troubled times.
Sketch portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt.

The 190th sonnet of Petrarch’s Canzoniere presents the “sweetly austere” image of a “doe of purest white upon green grass.” Petrarch, a 14th-century Italian poet, contemplates the mystical deer with devotion; it is, after all, a stand-in for his beloved, Laura. Around the deer’s throat is a necklace studded with diamonds and topaz, symbols of steadfastness and chastity respectively—an appropriate bit of mineralogical allegory for a poet so identified with idealized love. It’s telling that when the English poet Sir Thomas Wyatt reimagined Petrarch’s sonnet some two centuries later, he deleted the detail about the topaz. Petrarch wrote about chastity; Wyatt wrote about anxiety.

Wyatt was the first English poet to write sonnets, and he was indebted to Petrarch, as were almost all other Renaissance poets. Yet even a cursory consideration of Wyatt’s “translation” reveals how the poet subverted his predecessor. Petrarch’s language is ethereal, characterized by words such as purest, sweetly, treasure, and pleasure. Wyatt prefers a vocabulary of nervous menace. He writes of “vain travail” and of his “wearied mind” and of a deer’s collar that warns she is “wild for to hold, though I seem tame.” Wyatt even invents an entirely different first line, rendering Petrarch’s “A pure white hind appeared to me” as “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind.” Moreover, he replaces the virginal gloss of Petrarch’s poem with a sexually predatory pursuit. The Italian version comes off as luminous and transcendent; Wyatt’s English iteration connotes worry and paranoia. These differences are perhaps attributable to the woman with whom Wyatt supposedly had an affair: Queen Anne Boleyn.

Historians are uncertain whether Wyatt actually had a relationship with King Henry VIII’s doomed wife, famously beheaded in 1536. The possibility, though, speaks to Wyatt’s proximity to power as a courtier among the Tudors. Indeed, his sonnet is about power. “Whoso List to Hunt” takes as its subject the experience of living under the control of an all-powerful state. This is arguably the theme of all Wyatt’s verse and a theme prevalent in much poetry of the period. One need only read Stephen Greenblatt’s recent book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (2018), which investigates the ways in which the Bard explores questions of political absolutism, for examples of such concerns in the literature of the age. Wyatt’s closeness to the centers of power, however, and his implication in their crimes, gives his voice unique personal authority. He is the first great poetic explicator of totalitarianism, and his writing records the conscience of one individual grappling with radically dangerous politics. Placing him fully in his own era allows him to speak to the anxieties of our own.


In his poems, Wyatt explores everything from lost love and the male ego (“They Flee From Me”) to political cynicism (“Mine own John Poynz”) to aspirations of national greatness (“Tagus, Farewell”), but regardless of subject, his chief literary moods are anxiety and ambivalence. True to these emotions, Wyatt was both a victim and a collaborator in a new kind of political system: the totalitarian state. The 16th century may have been the golden age of English literature, but it also fostered an increasingly draconian monarchy. During Wyatt’s career, the Tudor dynasty had ruled over England for only a generation, and the family’s ascendancy was built on shaky claims, born from Henry VII’s famed defeat of the final Plantagenet king, Richard III, in 1485. The second Tudor king’s reign was primarily marked by Henry’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of an independent, national Protestant church. Parliamentary legislation and royal decrees between 1532 and 1534 contributed to rapid changes across almost every aspect of life, from demographics to religious reform. Overseeing it all was an increasingly centralized government that both employed and punished Wyatt. As his most recent biographer, Nicola Shulman, notes in Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Poet, Lover, Statesman and Spy in the Court of Henry VIII (2011), “Wyatt, like Mandelstam or Akhmatova, was a poet writing under tyranny, who might yield insights into life under the Tudor Stalin.” Wyatt’s great theme is the very modern subject of the individual’s moral ambiguity when implicated under an oppressive power.

Wyatt was the product of an age that Greenblatt describes in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) as “dominated by a ruthless despot and pervaded by intrigue and envy.” Indeed, Wyatt’s age was marked by secrecy, paranoia, treachery, and the delicate dance between subversion and complicity. In the 20th century, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin observed that “there is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” This is especially true (albeit retroactively) in Wyatt’s lyrics. Consider a Wyatt poem that, like all the verse written in his lifetime, was preserved only in manuscript (in this case included in a collection known as the Devonshire Manuscript).

To counterfeit a merry mood
In mourning mind I think it best,
But once in rain I wore a hood
Well were they wet that barehead stood.
But since that cloaks are good for doubt
The beggar’s proverb find I good:
Better a path than a hall out.

These lyrics concern the guile that’s sometimes necessary to survive—the guile of counterfeiting “a merry mood” in which pantomime, deception (of self and others), and obsequiousness may help one avoid the axe. (It’s all the more important to counterfeit such emotions in “mourning mind,” with a pun on the adjective because morning was the traditional time for executions, and a merry mood the only possible insult against the executioner.) Wyatt was a sometimes-trusted adviser to Henry VIII and was part of a failed 1527 mission to Rome to convince the pope of the king’s right to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Boleyn. The poet’s commitment to the Tudor monarchy also implicated him in a later unsuccessful plot to assassinate Reginald Pole, an English cardinal who almost became pope himself. But Wyatt could be Henry’s victim too, imprisoned twice on murky charges and always at risk of punishment. (Fellow poet Henry Howard was the last man executed before Henry died in 1547). How history should judge Wyatt is debatable. Even the poet himself writes that “cloaks are good for doubt,” and when in rain he “wore a hood,” making it difficult to determine whether he means the costume of the executioner or the executed.

In Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation (2005), Greg Walker notes that writers were “forced back upon their own intellectual resources in wholly new and more urgent ways.” But was the Tudor regime totalitarian in the modern sense? Political philosopher Eric Voegelin, a refugee from Nazi Germany, thought so. In the fifth volume of his History of Political Ideas, he describes Henry’s regime as the “first totalitarian state.” Henry consolidated and bureaucratized power while also eliminating rival claimants, such as an independent church. With the separation from Rome, an important check on Henry’s power was eliminated, as all ecclesiastical authority was vested in the monarch. That’s not to claim that previous monarchs were paragons of fair play—far from it. Rather, Henry had absolute authority through a centralized legal system in which regional authorities were subsumed under Henry’s increasingly absolutist rule, leading to the monopolization of its subjects’ livelihoods and attention. This was an era, as Greenblatt writes, when punishment “becomes so much more protractedly and agonizingly brutal” in comparison to the “fairly straightforward executions … of the Middle Ages.” Henry introduced a veritable theater of cruelty, in which the execution of men, including former advisers Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, and of his wives Boleyn and Catherine Howard “become virtuoso performances of torture, as if the physical torment of the traitor had to correspond fully to the incorporation of power,” as Greenblatt writes. Far from being a throwback, Henry was the first of a type: the totalitarian dictator.

Parliament passed legislation instrumental to the construction of this state, including the Acts of Supremacy and the Treason Act of 1534, which established Henry as being above criticism. These laws elevated the king to a position of supreme control, whereby “all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity” were owed to Henry. Heresy and treason were folded into each other so that anyone who would “maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practice, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king’s most royal person … or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words” any opposition to the sovereign would now be labeled as “heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown.” This was the first such law of its kind, designed, at least in part, to punish those who sang scurrilous songs about the king in taverns. No system of government demands more of those it ostensibly governs than totalitarianism. The individual has no recourse, and every subject is implicated in its oppressive machinery—“my King, my Country, alone for whom I live,” as Wyatt writes in “Tagus, Farewell.” After all, Wyatt had to actually talk to the dictator, and as Greenblatt quips, “conversation with the king himself must have been like small talk with Stalin.”

Small talk had its benefits, though. In 1540, Henry “gifted” the monastery at Boxley to Wyatt in recognition of the latter’s service. Still, Henry was a vain, intemperate, narcissistic ruler, prone to outbursts and retaliation and governed by a fickle nature that celebrated one day and punished the next. Wyatt was imprisoned on charges of having an affair with the queen, only to be later granted rare clemency from death. Despite being a victim of the king’s mercurial nature, Wyatt apparently had no compunctions about celebrating the aspirational greatness of the Tudor regime. In “Tagus, Farewell” he writes

[…] that westward, with thy streams,
Turns up the grains of gold already tried,
With spur and sail for I go seek the Thames,
Gainward the sun that show'th her wealthy pride,
And to the town which Brutus sought by dreams,
Like bended moon doth lend her lusty side.
My King, my Country, alone for whom I live,
Of mighty love the wings for this me give.

Recalling the diplomatic work he did in Spain on Henry’s behalf (the Tagus is a river in that country), Wyatt evokes the mighty Spanish Empire’s colonial magnificence, storehouses of Aztec and Incan “grains of gold” lining the coffers of King Charles V. Regardless of Spain’s grandeur, Wyatt sees the future as belonging to Britain, for he can turn his back on the Tagus and “seek the Thames,” which “Gainward the sun that show’th her wealthy pride, / And to the town which Brutus sought by dreams.” Wyatt invokes as his muse the mystical Brutus, the Trojan founder of Britain who was appropriated from legend to sing of future English greatness. Crucially, the myth of Brutus was central in justifying Britain’s ecclesiastical independence, and he was enlisted in legal opinions claiming Britain’s separate religious founding from Rome. Wyatt may be on a government mission to Toledo in the poem, but the Spanish capital’s magnificence doesn’t impress him, for the Tagus flows westward, the direction of dusk and death, and the Thames flows eastward toward youth and promise. Wyatt’s protestation that his European travels are for “my King, my Country, alone for whom I live” places an extreme emphasis on loyalty, so much so that “anxiety sweats from every line,” as Shulman writes. And with good reason.

“Tagus, Farewell” was composed in the context of Wyatt’s nefarious intelligence work for the king, such as the aforementioned conspiracy to assassinate Cardinal Pole, a Catholic exile from England who had a legitimate claim to the throne and was an anti-Protestant leader. But Wyatt knew how erratic Henry could be. Only three years earlier, the poet had been imprisoned on charges of infidelity and cuckoldry (with Boleyn). If “Tagus, Farewell” was circulated among other members of the court to exalt Henry, then more private poems indicate Wyatt’s deeper ambivalence. During his lifetime, a close-knit group of courtiers traded the handwritten manuscripts of Wyatt’s poems, reading them as part of courtly practice rather than as art for art’s sake. Wyatt wrote verse to demonstrate his skill and erudition in the shifting world of political intrigue. In that context, the purpose of “Tagus, Farewell” is clear. Even more interesting, however, are the lyrics that weren’t widely distributed or included in the miscellany of Wyatt’s work, published 15 years after his death. Many of these lyrics are found in the Devonshire Manuscript, mostly compiled by three women who were attendants to Boleyn, which is the most significant anthology of Wyatt’s uncollected poems. Among the most remarkable is one titled “Who list his wealth and ease retain.” Reflecting on his time in the Tower, with Boleyn and condemned men in nearby cells, Wyatt writes

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

The Latin epistrophe—“circa regna tonat”—can be loosely translated as “thunder rolls about the kingdom,” an invocation of a nation in disarray. That’s a far cry from Wyatt’s reference to “the town which Brutus sought by dreams.” In blunt and chilling language, Wyatt describes his own experience of “bloody days” that have “broken my heart.” No couplet is as horrifying in what it doesn’t say as when the poet observes that the “bell tower showed me such sight / That in my head sticks day and night.” Wyatt alludes to his trauma but lets readers guess what it might be. It calls to mind Matthew Zapruder’s argument in Why Poetry (2017) that “in a poem, we feel what is there, but also what is not.” Critics have argued that Wyatt witnessed the execution of the other condemned men in the courtyard of the Tower or perhaps Boleyn’s decapitation. Whatever the case, Wyatt doesn’t name what he witnessed nor is he at liberty to describe it, either because of his own trauma or because of expedient self-censorship.

Other lyrics in the Devonshire Manuscript indicate the survival lessons the poet learned while imprisoned. Mystery surrounds Wyatt’s release, although most historians point to the close relationship between the poet’s family and Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister who was ultimately executed. If Cromwell intervened, then part of the poet’s role in this exoneration may be indicated by another uncirculated lyric in the Devonshire Manuscript. Wyatt writes that “never was file half so well filed, / To file a file for every smith’s intent, / But I was made a filing instrument, / To frame other, while I was beguiled.” The poem plays with ambiguities around the word file, which connotes both the industrial filing of metal and the modern sense of systematized paperwork. The word also prefigures the 20th-century philosopher Hannah Arendt, who observed that administrative paperwork is at the core of totalitarianism’s “banality of evil.” Wyatt ultimately exonerated himself by being “made a filing instrument, / To frame others.” In short, Wyatt’s salvation was because he named names. 

That’s the moral complexity of collaborators, whether they’re enthusiastic partisans or merely trying to save their own lives (Wyatt was both). Wyatt was no different from those who through compromise or cooperation find themselves both victim and perpetrator. He understood the negotiations and personal treasons that one must countenance when confronted with fickle absolute power, as displayed in another uncirculated poem, this one from the Egerton collection, another cache of Wyatt’s documents. He writes of “Whom thou didst rule now ruleth thee and me. / Tyrant it is to rule thy subjects so / By forced law and mutability.” Perhaps with parliamentary legislation such as the Acts of Supremacy or Proclamation of the Crown Act of 1539 in mind, Wyatt condemns the tyrannical disposition of “forced law, and mutability.” But Wyatt’s poetry is also an example of the ways in which any critic must amend, deflect, or deny his unequivocal condemnations of the “tyrant.” Consider “Song 135,” in which Wyatt walks back proclamations made perhaps too rashly, writing that “what I sung or spake; / Men did my songs mistake,” as if accusations of Henry’s tyranny were just honest misunderstandings. Poetry written in a free society can be about any subject, and even poetry written under chaotic or oppressive governments still has some latitude, but verse written in a truly totalitarian state is indelibly curtailed by the state. Wyatt’s genius, a trait shared by any great poet writing under such conditions, is to convey subliminal messages.

That returns us to Petrarch’s 190th sonnet. Chalking up the differences in tone between the two versions as differences in the poets’ sensibilities would be easy, but the most salient distinction is that as politically tumultuous as Petrarch’s era was (and an era with rival popes couldn’t help but be tumultuous), Wyatt lived during the establishment of a truly modern totalitarian state. At the volta of both sonnets, it’s revealed that the jewels “in letters plain … her fair neck round about” spell out on the hind’s collar the traditional mark that branded all imperial deer owned by the Roman emperor. But the hind’s declaration of her servitude to an authority far greater than that of the narrator does something more radical than merely commemorate Wyatt’s rejection: it expresses a fundamental truth about authoritarianism. In the original, Petrarch writes in the vernacular: “Nessun mi tocchi,” which roughly translates to “Let no one touch me,” but Wyatt skirts blasphemy by translating that clause into the Vulgate Latin, writing in his sonnet’s penultimate line that the collar was inscribed “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am.”

Wyatt quotes John 20:17, in which Jesus tells Magdalene not to touch him. Here, those words are imparted unto the king’s property. Conventionally dated to either 1526 or 1527, Shulman argues the composition should be dated to 1532, given that the comment is likely a reference to Henry’s new religious authority. More important, Wyatt makes a disturbing theological point, for if the hind has been bound and constrained by Caesar—if Christ has been circumscribed by Henry—then all authority has been collapsed into one man, one power. No longer do you render unto Caesar and render unto God, but rather you render all unto Henry, for the authority of both church and state are now singularly invested in him. His state is totalizing, he is the object of faith, and as in any totalitarian state, his will cannot be ignored. Henry’s was a rewriting of divine authority, a transition so complete that by 1559, when his daughter Elizabeth I ruled, a Protestant polemicist could confidently write that “God is English.”

The darkest implication of the language is that Christ belongs to Caesar, and by proxy, all of Caesar’s subjects do too. They all should have “Caesar’s I am” tattooed around their necks. Thus the absolutist logic of the Fascist, for whom all subjects are property. Indeed, it’d be fair for Wyatt to have about his neck a constraint reading “Henry’s I am.” That’s the despairing lesson of all poetry produced with collars around their creators’ throats. All of Wyatt belonged to Caesar: his complicity and subversion, his collaboration and victimization, his career and punishments, his triumphs and abjection, the very poetry he wrote.

Originally Published: November 5th, 2018

Ed Simon is editor-at-large at the Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor to several websites, he is also the author of the essay collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion (Zero Books, 2018).