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May 17th, 1536. In tribute to George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, and Francis Weston: Two Poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt

It is often assumed, on the basis of various allusions in his love poetry, anecdotes relayed by his grandson George, and later fictional accounts, that the poet Thomas Wyatt had been in love with Anne at one time, and that his famous poetic lament over the terrible “sight” he had seen from the Bell Tower expressed his heartbreak over Anne’s execution. Undoubtedly, Anne’s death was shattering to him, whatever the nature of his affections for her. But, as a less famous poem,“In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase,” shows, “these bloody days” referred as well (or perhaps chiefly) to the executions of the men with whom Anne was accused. Anne is not mentioned in either poem—probably out of caution—but they are quite explicit about Wyatt’s despair over the fate of the others.

Wyatt’s poems—both these two, and many later ones–make it very clear that the experience was life-changing for him, creating complete and bitter disillusionment with court life, which raised his friends “aloft” only to bring them to such a horrible end. For no matter how pleasant and enticing life was at court, “circa Regna tonat”: Thunder Rolls Around the Throne. The “thunder”: Henry’s whims, which could turn the sun of fortune into a perfect—and fatal—storm.

As you read the poems, notice how prominent the theme of the precarious nature of court life is in them. In fact, after his release Wyatt spent only a short time at court, returning to his father’s castle in Allington, where he wrote the second poem. He ultimately did return to court in 1537, knighted by Henry for his service in suppressing the Pilgrimage of Grace. But nearly all his poems continue to express alienation and disdain for the artifice, vanity, and illusions of court life.

 

I

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

 

 

 

 

 II.

IN MOURNING WISE SINCE DAILY I INCREASE

In Mourning wise since daily I increase,

Thus should I cloak the cause of all my grief;

So pensive mind with tongue to hold his peace’

My reason sayeth there can be no relief:

Wherefore give ear, I humbly you require,

The affect to know that thus doth make me moan.

The cause is great of all my doleful cheer

For those that were, and now be dead and gone.

What thought to death desert be now their call.

As by their faults it doth appear right plain?

Of force I must lament that such a fall should light on those so wealthily did reign,

Though some perchance will say, of cruel heart,

A traitor’s death why should we thus bemoan?

But I alas, set this offence apart,

Must needs bewail the death of some be gone.

As for them all I do not thus lament,

But as of right my reason doth me bind;

But as the most doth all their deaths repent,

Even so do I by force of mourning mind.

Some say, ‘Rochford, haddest thou been not so proud,

For thy great wit each man would thee bemoan,

Since as it is so, many cry aloud

It is great loss that thou art dead and gone.’

Ah! Norris, Norris, my tears begin to run

To think what hap did thee so lead or guide

Whereby thou hast both thee and thine undone

That is bewailed in court of every side;

In place also where thou hast never been

Both man and child doth piteously thee moan.

They say, ‘Alas, thou art far overseen

By thine offences to be thus deat and gone.’

Ah! Weston, Weston, that pleasant was and young,

In active things who might with thee compare?

All words accept that thou diddest speak with tongue,

So well esteemed with each where thou diddest fare.

And we that now in court doth lead our life

Most part in mind doth thee lament and moan;

But that thy faults we daily hear so rife,

All we should weep that thou are dead and gone.

Brereton farewell, as one that least I knew.

Great was thy love with divers as I hear,

But common voice doth not so sore thee rue

As other twain that doth before appear;

But yet no doubt but they friends thee lament

And other hear their piteous cry and moan.

So doth eah heart for thee likewise relent

That thou givest cause thus to be dead and gone.

Ah! Mark, what moan should I for thee make more,

Since that thy death thou hast deserved best,

Save only that mine eye is forced sore

With piteous plaint to moan thee with the rest?

A time thou haddest above thy poor degree,

The fall whereof thy friends may well bemoan:

A rotten twig upon so high a tree

Hath slipped thy hold, and thou art dead and gone.

And thus farewell each one in hearty wise!

The axe is home, your heads be in the street;

The trickling tears doth fall so from my eyes

I scarce may write, my paper is so wet.

But what can hope when death hath played his part,

Though nature’s course will thus lament and moan?

Leave sobs therefore, and every Christian heart

Pray for the souls of those be dead and gone.

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Filed under May 19th, 1536 Feature