If you’re a lackadaisical poetry reader, one for whom prose is the natural element, you may like to reread the same poems again and again, so that they become an effortless delight. Sit in the hammock, sip a non-alcoholic mint julep, and reread an epic: it will take all summer and you’ll never be bored. Translating Virgil and Dante is completely absorbing, though juggling dictionaries and grammars can be awkward. English, however, may be read in the supine position. Paradise Lost is always a joy, but you may prefer the shorter Paradise Regained for its weird pinnacle imagery and intellectual and spiritual dialogue between Christ during his 40 days in the desert and Satan.
But this summer I'm not reading epic: my poet is the much maligned Renaissance lyric poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt. Recovering from a 30-mile bike ride in the heat and rain yesterday, I reclined on the couch and read at random all of Wyatt in The Oxford Book of English Verse. I quickly became an anthology expert and had to find a better book. The Essential Wyatt, selected by W. S. Merwin, was in our mud room. And what an improvement over the revered Oxford anthology, which has no critical introduction or biographical information! Merwin’s introduction is both personal and informative: during Merwin’s student days he was struck by Wyatt’s original verses, “and it was the cranky artistry not just of his prosody but of his language as a whole, its mixture of bluntness and grace, directness and song, that first drew me to his poetry.” He defends Wyatt’s irregular metrics, long condemned, and explains that they were championed in the 1930s by E. K. Chambers, who considered them a predecessor of Donne and Hopkins. Many of his poems are translations of Petrarch; many meant to be sung. Merwin also includes a brief bio and relays the titillating gossip about Wyatt’s love affair with Anne Boleyn (which should be taken with a grain of salt: it’s not so very different from Catullus’s alleged - and on little evidence - affair with Clodia: but three sixteenth-century accounts claim Wyatt confessed he had been Anne Boleyn’s lover and that she was not fit to marry Henry VIII.).
Wyatt was born in 1503, attended Cambridge, married Lord Cobham’s daughter at 17, became a diplomat at 22, and managed to escape from the Spanish when they imprisoned him on a diplomatic mission to Italy to see the pope - how he escaped Merwin does not say - and I, for one, am ready for a historical novel about this! He was imprisoned in the Tower in 1536 (Anne-related), but after his release his diplomatic career flourished until his friend and patron, Cromwell, was executed in 1540. Wyatt died in 1542.
Well, it's his poetry that impresses me. And here is a sonnet commonly interpreted as about Anne Boleyn. (Sorry about the placement of the lines: I can't get them to come out in the blog form.)
Who so list to hounte, I know where is an hynde,
But as for me, helas, I may no more.
The vayne travaill hath weried me so sore,
I ame of theim that farthest cometh behinde.
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,
Sithens in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,
As well as I may spend his tyme in vain.
And graven with Diamondes in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
"Noli me tangere for Cesars I ame,
And wylde for to hold though I seme tame.“
Note: The poetry is online, but sometimes it is translated into modern spelling - not necessarily a bad thing - and other times Wyatt's original spelling is mangled. So it's probably better to read the book.