How to get a handle, not on Thomas Wyatt, but on the elusive power of his verse? One way is to consider that the verse is conditioned often by attempts at eluding those in power as they would seek to gain a handle on the Wyatt; or else conditioned by Wyatt’s recognition that power eludes not only those who seek it, but, ultimately those who believe they possess it; it being no firm thing to hold a handle upon–and this be it the power of love, or the power of politics, often, for Wyatt, meeting at a dangerous crossroads. Elusive power, in both senses, is the matter that Wyatt’s poetry works upon; the enemy against which he would marshal and march the regiments of language. But how to marshal language against such a foe? The poetry must recognize the irony of its own situation: that its own power is elusive, capable of faltering, or falling away, the poet unwittingly ceding control, the language failing; that elusive power may turn upon it, proving to gain the upper hand, threatening the poet with the potentially dire consequences of political engagement. The verse must be suggestive of accusation without accusing; querulous of circumstances without quarreling against them; it must intimate dread without confessing it; stand proudly aloof from snares without losing sight of them. Power that eludes some runs to others; only to elude those in turn; its favors cannot be trusted; but nor can its fickleness be entirely despised; against the unpredictable, one must hedge–but too much hedging and the poetry loses the only force it has–the force of binding by words to a world; the poet being bound by the normative force of his utterances. But on account of such force, the poet is made vulnerable to those in power; he is made vulnerable to what Geoffrey Hill, with Wyatt among others in mind, calls “protean callousness.” Wyatt’s poetry not only performs counter-evasions of evasive, elusive, protean power, but reflects upon the position that it–like Wyatt–is in.
As has no doubt been often said and more often felt, his is the poetry of the precarious, as it has never been written since. Think of how many poems are written full of doubts as to how fortune may turn; full of hopes of redress against wrongs inflicted from secret sources; borne of the arcane intuition, or subtle knowledge, that power has turned against him, that he is out when he once was in, or down where he once was up. So often he hopes that redress might come, pleads for it; but then resigns himself to the waste of efforts, the plea itself all that is salvageable, the stuff of the poem.
What language, then, for the poetry of the precarious? A fine Wyatt poem that Wyatt didn’t write– as Charade is the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock didn’t direct–is surprising in its provenance, and its author quite likely did not have Wyatt in mind. But its loose resemblance to a Wyatt work can suggest an answer to the question. It begins:
They told me you had been to her, And mentioned me to him: She gave me a good character, But said I could not swim.
But the clinching Wyatt-note comes later:
If I or she should chance to be Involved in this affair, He trusts to you to set them free, Exactly as we were.
My notion was that you had been (Before she had this fit) An obstacle that came between Him, and ourselves, and it. Don’t let him know she liked them best, For this must ever be A secret, kept from all the rest, Between yourself and me.
At the court of the Red Queen, rather than at the court of Henry; but at court, and words turned as evidence in trial nonetheless; the circumstances of the poem, in Wonderland though they be, would not have struck Wyatt I think as utterly alien.
What makes it near to Wyatt is not only the secrecy, not only the threat detected only in the side-long glances thrown as the song springs forward on its strains of balladry, but the pronouns. In a class on Alice, where I drew attention, with little to say but that I thought the lines worth attention, to the class, a student seized on the pronouns of Carroll’s poem, calling them “ambiguous.” I pointed out that they are not ambiguous because ambiguity allows several possibilities–here there are no possibilities to choose between. But an alternative “vagueness,” is not quite right either because there is no trouble with distinctions, or with lack of clarity; we simply don’t know enough. We might say that the poem’s overall subject is vague, since we have hints of a theft, perhaps romance of some sort, some sort of an affair (not between lovers, but an affair like the Dreyfus affair); but the pronouns themselves are not. Instead, they take full advantage of one peculiar source of ire and inspiration in pronouns which is to insist on intimacy of knowledge and community, even when there is none–or when all we have to go on are suspicions or invented narratives.
Wyatt does not go to the same nonsensical extremes as Carroll–but he repeatedly caws pronouns, and so flaunts what we cannot know for sure, what nobody could know for sure–he places us in a place of precarious knowledge, set against his knowingness. In the well-known, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” the third-person pronoun is exchanged, in the second stanza, for a more specific referent, “once in special | When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall.” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174858).
I cannot think of a poet who gets more out of pronouns, since for Wyatt they carry the burden of mystery, the sharp point of accusation, and also the danger of discovery. Granted, it is difficult to imagine how Wyatt might have written lines from this poem without deploying pronouns where and how he does:
And I have leave to go of her goodness And she also to use newfangleness. But since that I so kindly am served I would fain know what she hath deserved.
But what matters is not whether other words might have been deployed so much as that the context of the poem has invested these pronouns with a charge that belies their frequency and inevitability in the English language. And it is perhaps on account of their being as frequent and inevitable as they are that they are is so bluntly felt; there is no walking around them, but there is also no walking through them. We encounter them repeatedly in the poetry, their opacity and density not at all expect.
Sweating, in many poems, his precarious place, Wyatt turns to advantage the precarious referential pointing that pronouns normally do; we all know their precariousness from writing and speaking, when a clause throws into doubt the antecedent or object of an “it” or “she.”
Two other ways stand out to me as features of words and wording in Wyatt’s precarious verse. One is a delight in puns, and a delight in one pun in particular:
In faith I not well what to say, Thy chances been so wondrous, Thou Fortune, with thy diverse play That causes joy full dolorous And eke the same right joyous. Yet though thy chain hath me enwrapped, Spite of thy hap, hap hath well happed.
Hap as chance; hap as happiness; hap as an intention; and, I speculate but no doubt there is some critical-scholarly remark somewhere that settles the matter, hap also as a thin echo of “hope,” another keystone in the Wyatt lexicon of precarious living (alongside the redress that may not come, though hoped for, or that will come by hap, if it come at all). In the protean turns of the word’s sense, Wyatt finds a response to the “protean callousness” that Hill identifies in Wyatt’s purview. And finally, the poem is structured by a principle common to the continental traditions and forms upon which Wyatt drew–the refrain. But the refrain is touched–and touches on–the precarious, too.
Being as none is, I do complain Of my mishap, torment, and my woe, Wishing for death with all my might and main For life is to me as my chief deadly foe. Alas, alas, of comfort I have no moe, Left but only to sing this doleful song: ‘Patience, perforce, content thyself with wrong.’
Ever I hope some favour to obtain, Trusting that she will recompense at last, As reason were, my passing deadly pain. And still I persevered and they increased so fast That hope me left and I, as all aghast, Had no comfort, but learned to sing this song: ‘Patience, perforce, content thyself with wrong.’
I burn and boil, without redress. I sigh, I weep, and all in vain, Now hot, now cold. Who can express The thousand part of my great pain? But if I might her favour attain Then would I trust to change this song, With ‘pity’ for ‘patience’ and ‘conscience’ for ‘wrong.’.
The refrain takes many guises in Wyatt’s poetry–sometimes a metrical recurrence; more often a variation on a phrase (in “The heart and service to you proffered”: ‘But take it to you gently’:’Of him that loves you faithfully’; ‘Therefore accept it lovingly’; ‘At your commandment humblely’; ‘To be your servant secretly’; ‘Reward your servant liberally.’), sometimes with more, sometimes less variation; sometimes a repeated phrase set each time in a different broader phrase (in “Suffering in sorrow, in hope to attain,” we find ‘serve and suffer’ repeated in each line of the refrain, but each line of the refrain a different phrase as a whole). On each occasion there is something to be said for, to, about the precarious: that the meaning of a phrase can shift so slightly and significantly in orientation when set anew; that stability of meter and rhythm may guarantee order, but only against much that is in flux; that a necessary, fixed attitude–‘patience’ or ‘serve and suffer’–needs to be repeated, fixed in place, as a last, desperate stay against all that is not ensured. Many of the trail along the reader, playing on expectations, and the curiosity of what will happen in the next refrain. In “Being as none is, I do complain,” Wyatt bemoans the refrain to which he must returns, and then unsettles it, realizing change in the poem by sole strength of the wish that she would change, that he could “trust” in her–but trust is what he cannot have; he can be, must be, confident in the necessity of the refrain he sings on account of the world’s offering so little else of which he can be confidently assured.