Andrew Sanders, The Short Oxford History of English Literature (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004)
(A book I rescued – for under 50p – from a Greater Manchester library who had withdrawn it because it was not being taken out …)
I’m going to step back a little to someone who operated before Shakespeare lived, but will have influenced the development of poetry up until our boy arrived on the Shake-scene.
Meet Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), who was, in the words of Andrew Sanders:
‘[…] the well-travelled and sophisticated courtier-diplomat, [who] introduced full-blooded Petrarchanism to England.’
The Guardian quotes Nicola Shulman as saying of his poems:
‘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’
I love that notion of being ‘fettered with chains of gold’: it links to the ‘hollow crown’ speech from Richard II, that I talked about in class this week: off the top of my head, no Shakespearean ruler, nor aspirant who climbs to the top of the greasy pole, is ever happy with their supremacy. Perhaps we could ask Theresa May how it’s going for her …
But to our quotation: my KS5 teaching is, at the moment, heavy on context (AO3, for the interested), and to me that involves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Shakespeare‘s and Marlowe‘s customers, paying or otherwise. They knew, far better than our students know, the jostling, jockeying and general air of mistrust amid the high-stakes games that were being played.
Wyatt was implicated in the arrest, trial and execution of Anne Boleyn, but managed to wangle his way out. My quotation is long today – a poem actually – with some commentary by Sanders at each end:
‘Few poems of the period convey as vividly the arbitrary shifts in fate and in the exercise of royal power:
And thus ffarewell eche one in hartye wyse!
The Axe ys home, your hedys be in the stret;
The trykklyngge tearys dothe ffall so from my yes [eyes]
I skarse may wryt, my paper ys so wet.
But what can hepe [help] when dethe hath played his part,
Thoughe naturs cours wyll thus lament and mone?
Leve sobes therffor, and every crestyn [Christian] hart
Pray for the sowlis [souls] of this be dead and gone.
Wyatt’s poem is ostensibly a Christian valediction which indulges in, rather than forbids, mourning, but it is also a poem which edgily acknowledges the political danger of mourning traitors.’