Richard Tottel, in his collection of Songes and Sonettes (1557) gave pride of place to Surreyfs poems[1]; and gin the interest of smoothnessh[2] (my italics) he made many unfortunate, iambic-pentameterising alterations to Wyattfs texts.[3]  He was a conscientious editor with regard to the authorship of the texts in his collection,[4] but not with regard to the texts themselves; apart from the abovementioned alterations, he converted three rondeaux into somewhat irregular sonnets.[5]  The eighteenth century, and the nineteenth century, generally preferred Henry Howardfs verse to that of his predecessor and role model.[6]  The twentieth century has witnessed the reversal of these attitudes, with the turning-point in Wyattfs critical reputation being generally considered to be Hallett Smithfs eThe Art of Sir Thomas Wyattf which appeared in The Huntington Library Quarterly, IX(4), (August 1946), pp. 323-355; Wyatt is now often applauded for his emodernityf and Surreyfs melody is condemned as trivial.[7]  As a result of this shift in attitude, J. William Hebel and Hoyt H. Hudson noted in the 1957 reprint of their 1929 Poetry of the English Renaissance 1509-1660 that the only substantial revision was of the texts and notes for Wyatt (p. vi).  The proximity in time, and the friendship, of the two poets, has resulted in judgements of their artistic skill being made by way of comparison[8]; the problem is that the comparative approach, as so often in history, has been vitiated by the placing of the two objects of comparison in the unsteady scales of subjectivity – scales on which the makerfs name and age are lightly engraved.[9]    A simultaneous appreciation of both poets should not lie beyond manfs critical faculties.[10]  Differences in method and effect are fascinating, but do not really form a valid criterion for an evaluation of artistry; of importance here is the level of skill employed and the relationship between the method used and the effect achieved.  To state that it is simply the result that matters,[11] or that a writerfs merit lies in what he has accomplished, not in what he has attempted or introduced,[12] is rather too simplistic; it is the process of translation, or the process of imitation, that is of the essence.  A study of this process will highlight the possibilities of the past – and of the present.


Wyatt has also, together with Surrey, suffered from comparison with Sidney,[13] and inevitably with Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth.[14]  Over the centuries, the sonnet, largely because of the character of the two most famous sonnet sequences[15] – those of Petrarca and Shakespeare[16] – has come to be regarded as an expression of the self.[17]  Interest in the sonnets of Petrarca and Shakespeare has often been strongly biographical[18]; and when man and artist are viewed as one and the same entity, this poses problems for the translator.[19]  The cult of poetic personality – beginning with Petrarca, who gmade personal experience the mainspring of poetic creationh[20] – often elevates the poet while derogating the forms he uses, and it leads to an over-emphasis on the importance of originality.  Wyatt has also endured criticism as a result of his versatility; he has been praised as a translator/adaptor, to the depreciation of his original lyrics; conversely, it has been claimed that his lyrics, not his translations, are his greatest poems.  The criterion for this latter judgement, however – the number of people who enjoy his lyrics and translations – suggests that there exists a large body of poetry readers who read with resistance to deep thought; the difficulty and ambiguity of Wyattfs translations (his sonnets, especially[21]) informs them with a length and vigour of life beyond the reach of translations in a smoothly facile style.  Even were this criterion valid, it would raise an unnecessary barrier between the living significance of a poet and his importance in literary history.[22]


Wyatt has been judged against aims he almost certainly did not set himself;[23] and he has been scarified for failing to comply with a standard (iambic pentameter) that became the accepted norm only after his death.  Moreover, there really is no reason to judge English poetry against this one standard.[24]  Many critics over the centuries have wished to read the smoothness and musicality of Italian verse into English; and no form is more susceptible to attack from these critics than the sonnet.[25]  There was a native lyrical tradition of smooth verse in Wyattfs time, but there was also another tradition, that of the discursive poetry of the 15th century, which had developed from the alliterative line and possessed no regular flowing rhythm.[26]  In a fairly recent work,[27] H.A. Mason made many conjectural eimprovementsf to Wyattfs rhythm and rhymes.  Such an imposition may be seen as an episode in the afterlife of a text; it does, however, imply an overly reductive view of what is metrically permissible in poetry.  A further hindrance is the belief that the Italians perfected the forms they invented[28]; there is the sense of always struggling in the wake of Petrarca and Dante.  It is true that the Italian sonnet had already attained a fairly high level of sophistication by Petrarcafs time, whereas Wyatt was importing a new form; this consideration makes his achievement all the more remarkable.  Finally, his fame has often rested on his introduction of the sonnet to England; and innovators are often susceptible to attack from those critics who wish to chart an acclivity of temporal progression.[29]



This short document concludes with a note on the provisional nature of translation criticism.  The problem of authorality confronts the critic of this period, for the poems of Wyatt, Surrey and their contemporaries were circulated in manuscript[30] and regarded as greusable texts, belonging to a shared cultureh and thus inviting revision, excerpting, or supplementation[31].  It is especially evident in Wyattfs sonnet eLike to these vnmesurable montaynsf (XXXIII).  In the 19th century, this was believed to be a translation of the French sonnet eVoyant ces montsf of Mellin de Saint-Gelais [1487-1558]; critical comment consequently focused on its originality in its departures from the French.  Then it was discovered that the Italian eSimile a questi smisurati montif (in Sannazarofs works, but probably not by him) was the common source, and Wyattfs eoriginalityf is actually a closer adherence to the Italian than is displayed by the French translation.[32]  The edeparturesf remain, for the English and the French translators have chosen to treat the Italian text in different ways, and they are sufficiently interesting in themselves to repay study.  There is really nothing to gain, and much to lose, by regarding them in the uncertain light of eoriginalityf or to talk of einfluencef.






[1] The title of his eMiscellanyf (so called since 1870) runs: Songes and Sonettes, written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other – even though the first edition contained 41 poems attributed to Surrey and 97 attributed to Wyatt (Spiller, 1992, p. 94).  The reason for this probably lies in Surreyfs social status and Wyattfs son having led a rebellion against Queen Mary.

[2] Kenneth Muir, Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1963), p. 220.

[3] For an example of Tottelfs highly unsympathetic and devaluative alterations, see Michael R.G. Spiller (The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 99-101.  Nor has his rather monomaniac addition of fanciful titles relating to eThe Loverf, regardless of the content of the poem, found much critical favour.

[4] One poem attributed to Wyatt in the first edition of 5 June 1557 was moved to the eUncertain Authorsf section in the next edition of 31 July 1557 (R.A. Rebholz, Sir Thomas Wyatt, The Complete Poems. London: Penguin Classics, 1978; p. 10).

[5] eBehold, Lovef; eWhat vaileth truthf; and eGo, burning sighsf (Rebholz, 1978, pp. 337-9) which was originally a sonnet.

[6] Muir (1963), p. 221.  A typical example of the total misunderstanding of Wyattfs sonnets can be found in Lewis Einstein, The Italian Renaissance in England (New York: Columbia University Press, 1903), pp. 326-328.  Robert Bell, Poetical Works of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (London: J.W. Parker and Son, 1854) stated that Surrey was gthe first English poet who understood and exemplified the art of translationh – quoted in Casady (1938), p. 228.

[7] G.S. Fraser, in A Short History of English Poetry (Bath: Open Books, 1981) likens the metrical freedom of Wyattfs sonnets to the works of T.S. Eliot and Pound (p. 89).  In like vein, Lever (1974) compares him to early 20th century imagists reacting against Georgian styles and looking to Europe for inspiration (p. 15).

[8] Such has been the case ever since Puttenhamfs Arte of English Poesie (1589).  An interesting parallel to Wyatt and Surrey is provided by Juan Boscan and Garcilaso de la Vega; the successful re-entry of the sonnet into Spain began with Boscanfs meeting with the Venetian ambassador to Spain, Andrea Navagero, in 1526.  The common view is that Boscan found the task of importing the sonnet, and the endecasillabo, ultimately beyond his capabilities, but with Garcilaso the sonnet: gcse hace melodía perfecta y se impone definitivamente en nuestra patriah (Consuelo Burell [ed], Garcilaso de la Vega, Poesía castellana completa. Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1997; p. 19).  Garcilaso displays his technical mastery through his gsuaves y musicalesh lines (ibid, p. 20).  Therefore the edouble pairingf of Wyatt and Surrey with Boscan and Garcilaso is detrimental to Wyatt.

[9] Lisle Cecil John (The Elizabethan sonnet Sequences. Studies in Conventional Conceits 1938; Reissued New York, Russell and Inc., 1964), claims that linking Wyatt and Surrey is unfair to both poets, especially to the former (p. 7); Emrys Jones (1964) states, gthe traditional pairing of Surrey with Wyatt has not been helpful to an understanding of either of themh (p. xxiv).

[10] One effect of Surreyfs fall from critical grace is to place Wyatt in isolation and cast him as a figure with intentions beyond the capabilities of one man (H.A. Mason, Humanism and Poetry in the Early Tudor Period, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959; reprinted 1966, p. 234).

[11] Joost Daalder (ed.), Sir Thomas Wyatt, Collected Poems (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. xii.

[12] E.K. Chambers, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Some Collected Studies (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1933), pp. 122-3.  Chambers considers Wyattfs close translations to be gexotic writingh (p. 122); and as further proof of his Englishness, he remarks that gcthe study of English is still suffering from the past domination of continental professorsh who were gsomewhat deaf to the finer felicities of an alien speechh (p. 123).

[13] Maurice Evans (ed), Elizabethan Sonnets (London: J.M. Dent, 1994): Sidney took the English sonnet form gat a bound virtually from birth to maturityh (p. xxviii).

[14] A.K. Foxwell, reading back from the late Elizabethan to Henrician times, believed that Wyatt possessed a vague awareness of the possibilities of the five-foot line: gche wanted to make of rhyme what Shakespeare finally achieved in blank verse, but he did not grasp the fact that verse bounded by rhyme cannot be allowed the freedom which blank verse may possessh (A Study of Sir Thomas Wyattfs Poems, 1911. Reissued: New York: Russell & R. Inc, 1964, p. 28).

[15] But also because of the nature of the sonnet sequence itself.  The readers of a sonnet-sequence expected the author to have experienced, and perhaps suffered; whether he actually had or not, he had to make his readership believe. Anne Ferry, The eInwardf Language. Sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 21-2.

[16] The very names ePetrarchan Sonnetf and eShakespearean Sonnetf are value judgements; they did not invent these forms, and the eSpenserianf form was first used by the Castalian poets at James VIfs court.

[17] A more modern view of the eselff is the major theme of Spiller (1992), who treats of the self created by a text, the /I/, that lies between writer and reader.

[18] In the case of Shakespearefs sonnets, the readerfs biographical reaction is a natural response to the dramatic immediacy of these texts. –G.K.Hunter, eThe Dramatic Technique of Shakespearefs Sonnetsf in Jones (1977), 120-133 (121; 130).  This also applies to Astrophel and Stella; not, however, to the Canzoniere.

[19] There is a certain irony about the statement Burton Fishman made in eRecent Studies in Wyatt and Surreyf (ELR 1 [1971]), pp. 178-191: Wyatt is in need of an authoritative biography as an antidote to over-romanticisation and the distortion of his art to suit the fiction of his life (p. 183).

[20] J.W. Lever, The Elizabethan Love Sonnet (London: Methuen, 1956, reprinted 1974), p. 3.

[21] Lexical and syntactical ambiguity is a feature of Wyattfs sonnets, both translated and original. Ferry (1983), p. 100.

[22] Muir (1963), pp. 259-260.  He states that more people take pleasure from Wyattfs lyrics than from his translations of Petrarca and the Psalms.  A similar opinion is expressed by John Stevens (Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court. London: Methuen, 1961), pp. 148-149, W.J. Courthope (A History of English Poetry. London: Macmillan, 1904) Vol. II, p. 55, John Buxton (A Tradition of Poetry. London: MacMillan, 1967), who sees Wyatt as an English country gentleman, and G.A. White and J.G. Rosen (A Momentfs Monument: The Development of the Sonnet. London, 1975, pp. 5-6).

[23] D.G. Rees, in eSir Thomas Wyattfs Translations from Petrarchf in Comparative Literature 7 (1955), pp. 15-24, considers most of Wyattfs translations from Petrarca to be ga largely unsuccessful attempt to reproduce their adroitness in Englishh (p. 24).

[24] Throughout the history of the sonnet, the line has been the unit of composition.  Should each line not be judged on its own merit, not against an artificially imposed ideal, but against its content and relation to the other lines?  Irregular lines may throw their regular counterparts (or counterpoints) into relief (as mentioned by Muir, 1963, p. 226).

[25] The Italian critic Sergio Baldi argued for an Italian versification in Wyattfs lines; once the principles of elision, synaloepha and syncope are applied to his work, the irregularities disappear. –La Poesia di Sir Thomas Wyatt (1953) – summary taken from Burton Fishman, eRecent Studies in Wyatt and Surreyf in ELR 1 (1971), pp. 178-191 (181).  This is an interesting suggestion; Wyatt was a man not only to mark every thing he saw, but also every thing he heard.

[26] Daalder (1975), pp. xi-xii.

[27] Editing Wyatt (Cambridge: The Cambridge Quarterly, 1972), pp. 86-92.

[28] An old view: expressed, for example, by Charles Tomlinson in The Sonnet: Its Origin, Structure, and Place in Poetry (London: 1874), p.27, and still countenanced by critics such as T.R. Barnes, English Verse.  Voice and Movement from Wyatt to Yeats (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 1.

[29] Hence Foxwell (1964) regards him as a pioneer rather than a poet, and a builder, not a beautifier (p. 121).  Also Lever (1974) regards Wyattfs close translations as his earliest ones; subsequent deviations increased as his self-assurance grew (p. 24).  This is typical of the frequent, and paradoxical, view that a literary tradition may develop over time but the texts that constitute this tradition are not allowed to develop, or to be developed, through translation.

[30] And every manuscript copy of a text is an original; an exact copy is impossible (Manfred Görlach, The Linguistic History of English. 1974, 1994; English translation: London: Macmillan, 1997, p. 5).

[31] Elizabeth Heale, Wyatt, Surrey, and Early Tudor Poetry (London/New York: Longman, 1998), p. 4.

[32] Mentioned in Foxwell (1964), p. 60.