Analysis of Sir Thomas Wyatt's "Whoso list to hunt".


Whoso List to Hunt - Sir Thomas Wyatt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, helas! I may no more.
The vain travail hath worried me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.

Yet may I by no means, my worried mind
Draw from the deer; but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain;
And graven in diamonds in letters plain

There is written, her fair neck round about,
"Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild to hold, though I seem tame."

"Canzoniere" - Sonetto 190 - Francesco Petrarca

Una candida cerva sopra l'erba
verde m'apparve, con duo corna d'oro,
fra due riviere, all'ombra d'un alloro,
levando 'l sole a la stagione acerba.

Era sua vista sì dolce superba,
ch' i' lasciai per seguirla ogni lavoro:
come l'avaro che 'n cercar tesoro
con diletto l'affanno disacerba.

"Nessun mi tocchi - al bel collo d'intorno
scritto avea di diamanti et di topazi -
libera farmi al mio Cesare parve".

Et era 'l sol già vòlto al mezzo giorno,
gli occhi miei stanchi di mirar, non sazi,
quand'io caddi ne l'acqua, et ella sparve.

Whoso analysis - David W.

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s work “Whoso list to hunt” (hereafter I shall refer to the sonnet as “Whoso”) is clearly a Petrarchan sonnet, with its fourteen lines, iambic pentameter and abbaabba cddc ee rhyme scheme. However it is obvious, due to its close resemblance to Petrarca’s own “Canzoniere - Sonnetto 190,” which gives us the biggest indication on what he based the poetic form of his sonnet on. “Sonnetto” like “Whoso” is also about hunting a doe upon which the hunter spies around her neck a diamond encrusted collar pertaining to Caesar’s ownership. However that is really where the similarities cease. At the time of writing (approx 1525 when Wyatt separated from his wife), King Henry VIII was married to his first wife Catherine of Aragon, but after meeting Anne Boleyn at a masquerade ball in March 1522, Henry like Wyatt became enamoured with her. At this time Henry Percy, the son of the Earl of Northumberland, was courting Anne and history tells us she was renowned for having a somewhat flirtatious nature and had many aspiring suitors whom she freely granted favours. Wyatt was not blind to this and clearly he had to be very careful with the subject matter when writing this sonnet due to the political ramifications it could cause (namely the loss of his head). In order to perhaps warn his King about the dangers of becoming involved with Anne, Wyatt penned this sonnet using subtle double entendres to get his message across.

The “Sonnetto 190” and “Whoso” sonnets are both about the courtship of an unattainable mistress using the allusion of hunting for deer ‘A snow white doe in an emerald glade To me appeared, with antlers soft of gold’ to Wyatt’s ‘Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind’. In both poems the hunter/author is made aware that the deer he is chasing, is owned by a far more powerful man than the author ‘Graven in topaz and diamond stones, “For Caesar wills I should always run free”’ to Wyatt’s ‘And graven with diamonds in letters plain There is written, her fair neck round about, “Noli me tengere, for Caesar’s I am”’. Despite the striking similarities between the two, Wyatt uses a particularly more direct approach and conveys a vastly different attitude in his hunter. In the original sonnet the hunter gives no indication of quitting the chase ‘and she was gone in a flash, lost in it’s pale gleam. While I still chased her, I fell in that stream!’ whereas in the second line of Wyatt’s work the hunter forsakes the chase ‘But as for me, helas! I may no more.’ It is this feeling of ineffectiveness that truly defines this poem, the futility of love leaving the reader with a heavy heart and a distinct feeling that something is missing.

“Whoso,” leaves the reader feeling melancholy, sharing with its author, that same sense of loss. Wyatt deliberately fashions this feeling into the way the sonnet is structured with alliteration and repetition. In order to convey this he uses the repetition of ‘h’ words such as ‘hunt’ and ‘hind’ and open vowel sounds like ‘Whoso’ ‘where’ and ‘helas’ to make the reader sound like they are sighing. Wyatt also uses enjambment in the second quatrain ‘Yet may I, by no means, my wearied mind Draw from the dear; but as she fleeth afore Fainting I follow.’ By doing this it further causes the reading to run out of breath again reinforcing the literal allusion of the hunt. Supplementary to this the double entendre is again in play, the breathlessness also signifying a sense of hopelessness; even the term “enjambment,” directly derived from the French word meaning “straddling” or “bestriding” may be construed as a secondary double entendre.

Wyatt obviously wanted to stay in favour with King Henry, hence keeping with the use of Caesar from the original poem, as well as attempting to keep Anne available for courtship from himself. Moreover the use of Caesar is especially ironic due to what happened later, and may indeed have acted as an added catalyst to the following events. Henry did not heed Wyatt’s warning and married Anne in 1533. However in order to do this Henry had to distance himself from Rome by completely severing ties with the Roman Catholic Church and forming The Church Of England. Two years later Wyatt was knighted in 1535, yet in 1536 found himself imprisoned due to quarrelling with the Duke of Suffolk, though it was more likely because he was suspected of being one of Anne’s lovers. After seeing Anne get executed on the 19th of May 1536 from the Bell Tower he was later released. History lesson aside, Wyatt’s skills as a poet with his use of complex literary conceits assisted in launching the metaphysical poets of the 17th century.

Author's Notes/Comments: 

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. - T.S. Eliot.

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