The Long Public Life of a Short Private Poem
Reading and Remembering Thomas Wyatt
Peter Murphy

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PART I

Thomas Wyatt Writes a Poem and Shows It to Others

Getting Oriented

“They Flee from Me” begins its object-life beautifully and evocatively. It was written into a book Thomas Wyatt owned and carried around with him, sometime around 1535. Today, the page on which it appears looks like this:

The book containing the page of which this is an image is stuffed full of writing, much of it put into the book before 1540. The old scripts make it almost indecipherable for the reader without the relevant specialized knowledge. There are many layers of time and owners present. Pages that have poems centered on the page also frequently show, in the margins, or written right over the poems, some selection of the following: numbers, arithmetic of an obscure and occasionally flawed sort, geometric figures, geometric proofs or expositions; long periods of prose, written in a very dense seventeenth-century hand; Hebrew words, or whole paragraphs of Hebrew; sermons; moral tags in Latin, repeated and translated; doggerel rhyme, scrawls, doodles, recipes for headache cures. On what is frequently the bottom temporal layer, poems: some written out very neatly, one poem to a page, almost always without a title. Some are clearly working drafts, in a comfortable scrawl, with words crossed out and others substituted.

That “They Flee from Me” and its book have survived the nearly infinite chances for destruction they have experienced in their long life together is wonderful, even astonishing. During that time the book has changed from a personal possession into an old object people forgot or did not value (except for the blank spaces left in it, good for doodling), and then into a sort of international treasure, locked up in the British Library and immensely valuable. In its almost five hundred years of life many people, known and unknown, have held it, turned its pages, slung it into bags and boxes; it has been forgotten for years and years, remembered, and forgotten again. It has been bound and rebound. It has been carted about by aristocrats and clerics and ordinary citizens.

The page on which “They Flee from Me” appears has a certain heft and feel, a texture, and a bookish, pleasant scent. Many people, known and unknown, have touched it over the long centuries. Someone other than Thomas Wyatt wrote the poem down, probably after being told to do so by Thomas Wyatt. That is, from a manufacturing point of view, it was “finished”: made, found to be good, or good enough, and so written out in this beautiful script, on nice paper. There was not at first anything else other than the poem on the page, and at a time when paper was expensive and blank paper not always at hand, this is notable. The poem was already special to someone: to Wyatt, if to no one else, and in a plain way to his secretary, who earned his keep by writing it down. Imagination can be aided by eliminating some of the signs of time:

The script is called the “Secretary Hand.” Members of Thomas Wyatt’s circle—that is, most of the members of the most powerful social caste in Henry VIII’s England, around 1530—would have been taught how to write the Secretary Hand, among others, though most people would not have perfected it in the way Wyatt’s secretary has. The Secretary Hand was the basic script of public life in this period, used for letters, memos, and some sorts of important documents. This script, and especially this secretary’s pure, beautiful version of it, signals that the words and the text were being entered on a public stage. Whatever the poem was before Wyatt’s secretary wrote it down (perhaps just thoughts inside Wyatt’s head), this embodiment not only makes it possible for others to interact with the poem but also marks it as something its maker(s) expected others to interact with. It is a kind of publication.

This page is a physical presence, as Thomas Wyatt himself was once, though through good fortune it has lasted rather longer. Wyatt passed away, and the page could too. This is not true in the same way of the poem the ink spells out. One material embodiment of the poem is on this page, but it is also, now, spelled out on countless other pages, physical and virtual, distributed through the whole world. It also has an immaterial form in the memories of living people. This immaterial form could also perish, along with the earth, but it is not present in the same way the paper-poem is present. Each time a poem takes shape as a material object, it descends from out of the abstract, immaterial space where it lives with all words and all things made from words. The material poem can appear in Times New Roman 12-point type on my screen, or in the same type on my printed page, or in neat Tudor script in a photograph of an old piece of paper—or on the once-new paper itself.

The first task, in beginning to follow out the long story of the life of the poem, is to understand better what kind of object it is. What is the nature of its inky, physical life, on this old page, in this old book? And what is the nature of its conceptual life? What is a “poem” in 1535?

“Tho.”

It is just to the left of the poem, amid the math: an abbreviation for “Thomas,” in an italic script, in Wyatt’s own hand. Nearly five hundred years ago, Wyatt looked over this page, which had been written by an employee, and approved it, standing in a bright room overlooking the fields of Kent, or while on a diplomatic mission in Spain: or somewhere else. He did this before October 1542, when he died on the road to Falmouth from a fever, and after 1503, when he was born.

We can only imagine why Wyatt’s mark might be there. Such a signature in a manuscript of Tudor poems is extremely rare; manuscripts of Tudor poems are extremely rare themselves. Since the poem was written out by someone other than Wyatt, and since that same person wrote out the first fifty or so pages of the book in which it is contained, it seems plausible that Wyatt assigned this writing as a task and then looked over the finished work at some future point and initialed it. On other pages Wyatt changes poems written out by his secretary: crossing out or scribbling over words, writing in new, rather messier words. In the case of “They Flee from Me,” all we really know is that Wyatt was there, looking at this page.

That is, when he initials it, Wyatt himself looks at his poem as an object, a small thing he has made but someone else has written. It is out of his head and has taken its place in the world. Clearly Wyatt wanted this to happen. In 1535 poetry was work a highly respectable person might engage in, work that could be done more or less capably and that produced objects other people received familiarly and expectantly. This poem was part of Wyatt’s daily business, just as the letters he wrote to Henry were part of his business; indeed, we can identify the “Tho.” as Wyatt’s by comparing it with the writing in his letters.

Wyatt’s initials connect this page and this poem to the busy and deadly world of Henry’s court, and to the life of a man.

Tho. Wiatt Knight

Here is the man, caught by another hand in Henry’s court, that of Henry’s favorite artist and decorative handyman, Hans Holbein:

This image, which has its own long story of preservation and transmission, has much the same power as Wyatt’s signature. It tells us (it helps us imagine) that once, in some real place, Thomas Wyatt, a real person, sat in front of Hans Holbein, an exquisitely trained and immensely talented artist, and Holbein drew these lines, guiding them by looking at the person sitting in front of him. On that day Wyatt’s beard (might have) curled in just this way; on that day some stray hairs peeked out from under his cap. Holbein omits the details of Wyatt’s cap. He perhaps meant to simply remember them, but he long ago turned to dust (along with the cap).

Did Wyatt look this way as he looked down at the page with his poem on it, just before he scribbled his approval there? What was he thinking? Did he recall its writing with fondness or regret? Did he recall the moment of writing it at all? Did he think of the applause with which it was received, or the silence? Perhaps he meditated on a lover in his past, perhaps on a lover in the present; perhaps on no lovers at all. He might have thought about the day he wrote it, the way the pen felt, the weather that day, the ways in which his fortune had turned, for better or worse, since that day. He might, at that moment, have been safe within the sturdy and quiet walls of his castle in Kent; he might have been within the hard walls of Henry’s Tower, uncertain of his fate, thinking about friends (Anne Boleyn, say) recently executed in the courtyard below.

In any case, it is interesting and salutary to ponder the possibility that Wyatt looked down on his poem of love and regret with the hard, canny, and hooded eyes Holbein recorded here: no soft light of memory shining through, no delicate self-consciousness disturbing the surface. These are the eyes and face of a capable and controlled man. A diplomat, a shrewd and calculating advocate of his King’s interests, and his own.

Birth

Wyatt’s invention and materialization of this poem was mostly a transformation of already existing culture: already existing poems, inherited forms, popular subjects for poems, ways of thinking common in Henry’s court. In other words, there is a lot in this poem Wyatt did not make up. Wyatt’s circle would have encountered such poems every day. Many of these poems were carefully allusive and fancy, as this one is, and many of them were constructed in very similar ways. The subject matter, love and regret (to put it generally), was by far the most common subject of short poems in this period, and for several centuries previous. The form of the poem, called rhyme royal, had been a common form (in English and French) for centuries.

Wyatt may, in fact, have made this poem by translating someone else’s poem. Wyatt was very interested in translation and did a lot of it, although no one has ever found another version of this poem. He also might have started by thinking generally about someone else’s description of someone else’s inconstant heart, in French, Spanish or Italian, all of which he knew, and then, finding it fit him in some way, adapted that description into English.

Perhaps he didn’t translate some old poem or adapt an old thought but simply had his head turned by an interesting or evocative old word (“newfangleness,” for instance, which he would have found in Chaucer), and then his poem grew out of that word and its context, since it fit with other things he was thinking about. Perhaps it sprang to life all at once in Wyatt’s head, and he simply wrote the poem out one London spring morning in the 1530s; perhaps he didn’t need to write it down, since he could remember it perfectly well. Perhaps, during one of the carefully orchestrated and complicated gatherings of the inhabitants of Henry’s court, Wyatt put this all together suddenly, from pieces lying about in the air or in his memory, as an entertainment for the men and women that made up his business and social circle.

Whatever the truth might be—whatever actually happened—the birth of this poem is bound to be either entirely or partly invisible. It might involve saying words, or doodling a bit, or writing out words here and there; it might involve writing a different but closely related poem out entirely and then changing that poem. Some still-existing pieces of paper show Wyatt doing this with other poems, but not this one. Inventing this poem might involve just thinking, so that the first time it appeared in the world it would already have been finished: writing it out, in this case, would be clothing it in the visible as a way of getting it out of his head. Reciting would make the poem material in another way. If Wyatt himself recited it, the very first writing out of the poem could easily have been done by someone other than Wyatt, by someone listening to him.

Like all language-objects, and certainly like all poems, Wyatt’s poem is a new thing when it comes into being, and it is an old thing too. There hadn’t ever been something exactly like this poem before at the moment Wyatt made it (this is still true even if he did translate a poem from some other language), but there were many already existing poems a lot like it. It would have felt new to the people who first encountered it, in ways I will come to, but “They Flee from Me” also sat comfortably within their Circle, new and deeply familiar at the same time.