The life of Thomas Wyatt, son of minor nobleman Sir Henry Wyatt, modeled the capriciousness of medieval Fortuna—in a Renaissance courtier. Educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, married to the daughter of Lord Cobham, and early serving as a court official, Wyatt followed the expected paths of the successful courtier. In his official capacity, he traveled to France and Italy where studied literature, including Petrarch’s sonnets and Pietro Aretino’s poems in ottava rima (poems with eight-line stanzas, ten or eleven syllables per line, and ABABABCC rhyme scheme). Wyatt won official posts as Marshal of Calais, Commissioner of the Peace in Essex, and ambassador to Spain.
While in Italy, though, Wyatt was captured by Spanish troops, from whom he escaped. While serving as Commissioner of Peace, he was briefly imprisoned—for uncertain cause. Perhaps a quarrel with the duke of Suffolk led to this misfortune. Perhaps his unverified relationship with Anne Boleyn prior to her marrying Henry VIII won Wyatt disfavor. As ambassador to Spain, he certainly had to face the ire of Emperor Charles V, nephew of Catherine of Aragon, then divorced from Henry VIII. And in 1541, Wyatt was accused of treason by Thomas Bonner, the bishop of London. His masterful self-defense attests to his rhetorical skills, for he won full pardon and resumed his role of ambassador. And en route to meet the Spanish ambassador, Wyatt caught fever and died.
His writing similarly embodies opposing trends. A complete courtier and gentleman, Wyatt was adept at learned pursuits; his prose translation of Plutarch’s essay Quiet of the Mind was published during his lifetime and well-received. His poetry circulated at court but was not published until 1557 when several of his poems were included in Tottel’s important Songes and Sonettes, also known as Tottel’s Miscellany. Wyatt’s native English lyrics reflect the influence of medieval popular song and Chaucer’s poetry. His metrical stanzas, including terza rima (three-line stanza with chained rhyme scheme of ABA BCB CDC, etc.), ottava rima, rondeau (lyric poems with refrains), and sonnets, reflect the influence of Italian and French literature. Indeed, his translations of Petrarch’s sonnets led to Wyatt’s introducing the sonnet into English. And he is credited with inventing the fourteenline poem with ABBA ABBA CDDC EE rhyme scheme known as the English (or Shakespearian) sonnet.
He did not invent but certainly helped popularize sonnet conventions (or conceits), including the disdainful lady, the agonized lover, and the idealized mistress. He added to traditional sonnet imagery—such as comparing love to sickness, servitude, and war—his unique perspective on life’s instabilities and uncertainties. And to the metrical regularity he brought to English poetry, he added his own irregular metric patterns and rough, often colloquial, speech patterns and language.