David Blackburn

Across the literary pages | 26 April 2011

Gonzalo Rojas, the arch enemy of General Pinochet, has died aged 93. The former exile was regarded as the equal of Pablo Neruda among South American poets. His death has been described a “great loss for Chilean literature”.

Charles Nicholl charts the renaissance of Thomas Wyatt, epitomised by Nicola Shulman’s new biography.

Thomas Wyatt was the finest poet at the court of Henry VIII, but this has not always earned him much respect. The early 16th century is generally accounted one of the lowlands of English literature, a period of mediocrity between the pinnacles of Chaucer and Shakespeare. CS Lewis dubbed it the “Drab Age” and said of Wyatt: “When he is bad he is flat or even null, and when he is good he is hardly one of the irresistible poets.” Today his reputation is much higher: we have been alerted to subtleties of mood and meaning beneath his brusque-seeming style, and Nicola Shulman’s trenchant new study takes us further down this line, delving with gusto into the political background of the poems and finding in them “secretive messages” which could not have been expressed openly.

Wyatt was pre-eminently a court poet, writing for a private audience. None of his poems was published in his lifetime – they survived in manuscript collections, one of which (Egerton MS 2711 in the British Library) contains more than 100 lyrics, mostly in his own hand, and some extensively reworked on the page. They are of interest to literary history for their pioneering use of continental forms, particularly the Petrarchan sonnet; but for Shulman they are mostly of interest as a veiled but intimate account of life inside the claustrophobic court of Henry VIII, with its fretful young men and women “fettered with chains of gold”, its jockeying for power and prestige, and those sudden and often fatal reversals of political fortune which are hinted at in the opening lines of Wyatt’s most famous poem: “They flee from me that sometime did me seek / With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.

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