Thomas Wyatt and I have one thing in common- we both grew up in Allington, today a suburb of Maidstone but in his day a small village by the Medway. He is something of a local celebrity in the area; when I lived there my local pub was known as the "Sir Thomas Wyatt" and at primary school I belonged to Wyatt House. (The school's other houses were also named after famous Maidstonians, Woodville after the Queen of Edward IV and Hazlitt after the essayist). As a boy I was taken on a guided tour of Wyatt's home Allington Castle, and I remember being told that he was responsible for introducing the sonnet into English poetry, although as I had no idea what a sonnet was this did not mean much to me at the time.
This book is entitled "The Complete Poems", but as the editor, Professor R A Rebholz, admits, compiling an authoritative "Wyatt canon" is an impossible task. In his day he was better known as a courtier and diplomat, and none of his poems were published during his lifetime; the first book to feature his verse was not printed until fifteen years after his death. Rebholz divides this collection into two parts, "poems credited to Wyatt in the sixteenth century" and "poems credited to Wyatt after the sixteenth century". The first part generally consists of poems for which there is hard evidence of Wyatt's authorship, the second of poems which have been attributed to him without such evidence.
Rebholz modernises Wyatt's spelling and punctuation, a procedure which has both advantages and disadvantages for the modern reader. The advantage is that meaning of the poems becomes much more immediately transparent when they are presented in the orthography with which we are familiar. The disadvantage is that Wyatt's rhyme-schemes are sometimes thereby obscured; the pronunciation of many words has changed since the 16th century, and these changes are sometimes reflected in changed spelling, sometimes not. The editor also provides helpful notes on Wyatt's language and on his use of metre.
Wyatt's favourite theme, to which he returns repeatedly, is unhappy love. To a modern poet or songwriter, "unhappy love" is generally equated with a once-loving relationship which has ended badly for one or both of the parties. Wyatt, however, rarely if ever writes about such relationships; the few poems dealing with this topic are generally in Rebholz's second section. His preferred theme is unrequited love, almost invariably love felt by a man for a proud, disdainful beauty who spurns his advances. Tradition has it that Wyatt's love poems were inspired by Anne Boleyn, whom he certainly knew well, but there is little evidence, internal or external, for such a suggestion. Indeed, it is quite possible that these poems may not be autobiographical at all. Many of them are translations or imitations of works by Classical or Italian writers, especially Petrarch, and even where they are original works Wyatt was clearly working within the framework of the traditional concept of "courtly love".
There is perhaps a reason why Maidstone has not joined Stratford, Grasmere and Haworth as a place of literary pilgrimage. Wyatt's occasionally archaic language and the depth of meaning present in many of his poems can make him seem a "difficult" writer. Although he also wrote religious verse (paraphrases on the Psalms) and epistolary satires attacking corruption at Court, the greater part of his work consists of love-lyrics, and to the modern reader this concentration on a single theme can seem rather monotonous, even depressing when one considers that when Wyatt was not bemoaning the cruelty of his beloved he was generally bemoaning the cruelty of fate in general. His lyrics also occasionally seem rather crude when compared to the poems of later sonneteers such as Sidney and Shakespeare.
Yet Wyatt was undoubtedly a great poet, probably the greatest English writer of the early sixteenth century. His poetry is about as different from the loose doggerel of his older contemporary Skelton as one could imagine. He generally used strict forms, not merely sonnets but also rondeaux, epigrams, ballades, canzoni and songs in various metres. The German word for poet is "Dichter", literally "one who condenses", and this description seems particularly apt in the case of Wyatt, who was highly skilled in the art of condensing as much meaning as possible into a relatively short poem. He made great use of ambiguity and plays on words in order to produce poems which can be read in two, or more, different ways, helped by the fact that in his day the English language had a smaller vocabulary than it does today and that one word could cover a broad range of meanings. (One of his favourite words is "fantasy", which besides its modern meaning could also mean, among other things, "imagination", "delusion", "caprice", "love" and "sexual desire"). The complexity of Wyatt's language anticipates developments in the work of later poets such as Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century. He has been called the "father of Modern English poetry", as opposed to Middle English or Scots poetry, and it would be hard to argue with that description.