A short note on the characteristics of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnets

Sir Thomas Wyatt occupies a conspicuous place in the history of English literature as the importer of the Italian  sonnet form into English literature. He stands out, as a pioneer, in the realm of poetry for his introduction of the Petrarchan form of the English sonnet. During his visit to Italy, on diplomatic missions, he came under the spell of the fourteenth-century Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch, a great name in sonnet writing. Petrarch’s sonnet celebrating his ideal love for his mistress Laura proved to magically instrumental to the beginning of a new poetic pattern in English by Wyatt. Immensely impressed, Wyatt turned to Petrarch’s model, translated some of his sonnets, and introduced English sonnets, following that model.

Thomas Wyatt, of course, was no prolific poet. His 96 love poems appeared posthumously (1557) in a compendium called Tottel’s Miscellany. His sonnets are nearly thirty in number, out of which some ten sonnets are the translations from Petrarch. What is, however, important to note is his initiative to devise a new poetic type in English on the Italian model. This new type, unencumbered by the medieval fiction or allegory, is found to sing, from the core of the heart, so much of personal pain and happiness and to set a model for the aspirant poets of the glorious Elizabethan age. In fact, sonnet-writing is found to be immensely successful in great Elizabethan literature, and here Wyatt’s role is particularly remarkable. Of course, Wyatt, as the pioneer, had the problem to reproduce in English a foreign pattern, with due solemnity and total unity. But he combated well with that to pioneer sonnet-writing in English.

Indeed, the literary pattern, set by Wyatt against the background of medieval literary traditions, still operating, has a specific significance in the literary history of the time. After all, the sonnet is not simply a poem of fourteen lines, with a certain rhyme scheme. It has a deftly balanced arrangement, with pauses and links between thoughts and arguments, retaining a total unified impression. This is truly a highly developed verse form that demands discipline and craftsmanship from the poet to mould and express his thought, with wit and aptness, to the precise share of some fourteen balanced lines. Wyatt is found to experiment, freely and effectively, with this new verse form and to make possible a broad road of development in English sonnet-writing.

Thomas Wyatt is, no doubt, a classical, rather Petrarchan, sonneteer. His sonnets occasionally appear as a sort of labored imitation. But, at the same time, some of his sonnets clearly tend to deviate from the usual structure of the Petrarchan sonnet by concluding the sonnet with a couplet or by breaking the sonnet into the two equal divisions of seven lines each. His sonnets, in some cases, seem to grope, through trials and experiments, to master a literary instrument, but they well reveal his craftsmanship to treat a conventional theme in a disciplined yet flexible poetic style.

Wyatt’s sonnets are truly commendable endeavors and possess individual beauty as well as strength. As a typical follower of Petrarch, he is concerned with love, in its fulfillment as well as frustration. The passion for love, expressed in his sonnets, is personal and intense, and this surely constitutes the essence of lyrical poetry. This personal pre-occupation seems to prompt in him a note of freedom from the conventional poetical slavery to love. His angry disdain and blunt revulsion register a logical consequence of the ill-treatment of love. Moreover, his sonnets are rich in images, metaphorical and varied, and in the impassioned diction of Petrarch and his followers. A smart combination of flexibility and regularity is definitely a rich gift to English poetry from Wyatt.

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