Chapter XXXIX. HOW THE SONNET CAME TO ENGLAND
UPON a January day in 1527 two gaily decked barges met upon the Thames. In the one sat a man of forty. His fair hair and beard were already touched with gray. His face was grave and thoughtful, and his eyes gave to it a curious expression, for the right was dull and sightless, while with the left he looked about him sharply. This was Sir John Russell, gentleman of the Privy Chamber, soldier, ambassador, and favorite of King Henry VIII. Fighting in the King's French wars he had lost the sight of his right eye. Since then he had led a busy life in court and camp, passing through many perilous adventures in the service of his master, and now once again by the King's commands he was about to set forth for Italy.
As the other barge drew near Russell saw that in it there sat Thomas Wyatt, a young poet and courtier of twenty-three. He was tall and handsome, and his thick dark hair framed a pale, clever face which now looked listless. But as his dreamy poet's eyes met those of Sir John they lighted up. The two men greeted each other familiarly. "Whither away," cried Wyatt, for he saw that Russell was prepared for a journey.
"To Italy, sent by the King."
To Italy, the land of Poetry! The idea fired the poet's soul.
"And I," at once he answered, "will, if you please, ask leave, get money, and go with you."
"No man more welcome," answered the ambassador, and so it was settled between them. The money and the leave were both forthcoming, and Thomas Wyatt passed to Italy. This chance meeting and this visit to Italy are of importance to our literature, because they led to a new kind of poem being written in English. This was the Sonnet.
The Sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, and is perhaps the most difficult kind of poem to write. It is divided into two parts. The first part has eight lines and ought only to have two rimes. That is, supposing we take words riming with love and king for our rimes, four lines must rime with love and four with king. The rimes, too, must come in a certain order. The first, fourth, fifth and eighth lines must rime, and the second, third, sixth, and seventh. This first part is called the octave, from the Latin word octo, eight. The second part contains six lines, and is therefore called the sextet, from the Latin word sex, meaning six. The sextet may have either two or three rimes, and these may be arranged in almost any order. But a correct sonnet ought not to end with a couplet, that is two riming lines. However, very many good writers in English do so end their sonnets.
As the sonnet is so bound about with rules, it often makes the thought which it expresses sound a little unreal. And for that very reason it suited the times in which Wyatt lived. In those far-off days every knight had a lady whom he vowed to serve and love. He took her side in every quarrel, and if he were a poet, or even if he were not, he wrote verses in her honor, and sighed and died for her. The lady was not supposed to do anything in return; she might at most smile upon her knight or drop her glove, that he might be made happy by picking it up. In fact, the more disdainful the lady might be the better it was, for then the poet could write the more passionate verses. For all this love and service was make-believe. It was merely a fashion and not meant to be taken seriously. A man might have a wife whom he loved dearly, and yet write poems in honor of another lady without thought of wrong. The sonnet, having something very artificial in it, just suited this make-believe love.
Petrarch, the great Italian poet, from whom you remember Chaucer had learned much, and whom perhaps he had once met, made use of this kind of poem. In his sonnets he told his love of a fair lady, Laura, and made her famous for all time.
Of course, when Wyatt came to Italy Petrarch had long been dead. But his poems were as living as in the days of Chaucer, and it was from Petrarch's works that Wyatt learned this new kind of poem, and it was he who first made use of it in English. He, too, like Petrarch, addressed his sonnets to a lady, and the lady he took for his love was Queen Anne Boleyn. As he is the first, he is perhaps one of the roughest of our sonnet writers, but into his sonnets he wrought something of manly strength. He does not sigh so much as other poets of the age. He says, in fact, "If I serve my lady faithfully I deserve reward." Here is one of his sonnets, which he calls "The lover compareth his state to a ship in perilous storm tossed by the sea."
"My galléy charged with forgetfulness,
Through sharpe seas in winter's night doth pass,
'Tween rock and rock; and eke my foe (alas)
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness:
And every oar a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace,
Of forcéd sighs and trusty fearfulness;
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Have done the wearied cords great hinderance:
Wreathéd with error and with ignorance;
The stars be his, that lead me to this pain;
Drownéd is reason that should me comfort,
And I remain, despairing of the port."
It is not perfect, it is not even Wyatt's best sonnet, but it is one of the most simple. To make it run smoothly we must sound the ed in those words ending in ed as a separate syllable, and we must put a final e to sharp in the second line and sound that. Then you see the rimes are not very good. To begin with, the first eight all have sounds of s. Then "alas" and "pass" do not rime with "case" and "apace," nor do "comfort" and "port." I point these things out, so that later on you may see for yourselves how much more polished and elegant a thing the sonnet becomes.
Although Wyatt was our first sonnet writer, some of his poems which are not sonnets are much more musical, especially some he wrote for music. Perhaps best of all you will like his satire Of the mean and sure estate. A satire is a poem which holds up to scorn and ridicule wickedness, folly, or stupidity. It is the sword of literature, and often its edge was keen, its point sharp.
"My mother's maids when they do sew and spin,
They sing a song made of the fieldish mouse;
That for because her livelod* was but thin
Would needs go see her townish sister's house.
. . . . . . .
'My sister,' quoth she, 'hath a living good,
And hence from me she dwelleth not a mile,
In cold and storm she lieth warm and dry
In bed of down. The dirt doth not defile
Her tender foot; she labours not as I.
Richly she feeds, and at the rich man's cost;
And for her meat she need not crave nor cry.
By sea, by land, of delicates* the most,
Her caterer seeks, and spareth for no peril.
She feeds on boil meat, bake meat and roast,
And hath, therefore, no whit of charge or travail.'
. . . . . . .
So forth she goes, trusting of all this wealth
With her sister her part so for to shape,
That if she might there keep herself in health,
To live a Lady, while her life do last.
And to the door now is she come by stealth,
And with her foot anon she scrapes full fast.
Th' other for fear durst not well scarce appear,
Of every noise so was the wretch aghast.
At last she askéd softly who was there;
And in her language as well as she could,
'Peep,' quoth the other, 'sister, I am here.'
'Peace,' quoth the town mouse, 'why speaketh thou so loud?'
But by the hand she took her fair and well.
'Welcome,' quoth she, 'my sister by the Rood.'
She feasted her that joy it was to tell
The fare they had, they drank the wine so clear;
And as to purpose now and then it fell,
So cheered her with, 'How, sister, what cheer.'
Amid this joy befell a sorry chance,
That welladay, the stranger bought full dear
The fare she had. For as she looked ascance,
Under a stool she spied two flaming eyes,
In a round head, with sharp ears. In France
Was never mouse so feared, for the unwise
Had not ere seen such beast before.
Yet had nature taught her after her guise
To know her foe, and dread him evermore.
The town mouse fled, she knew whither to go;
The other had no shift, but wonders sore,
Fear'd of her life! At home she wished her tho';
And to the door, alas! as she did skip
(The heaven it would, lo, and eke her chance was so)
At the threshold her sill foot did trip;
And ere she might recover it again,
The traitor Cat had caught her by the hip
And made her there against her will remain,
That had forgot her poor surety and rest,
For seeming wealth, wherein she thought to reign."
That is not the end of the poem. Wyatt points the moral. "Alas," he says, "how men do seek the best and find the worst." "Although thy head were hooped with gold," thou canst not rid thyself of care. Content thyself, then, with what is allotted thee and use it well.
This satire Wyatt wrote while living quietly in the country, having barely escaped with his life from the King's wrath. But although he escaped the scaffold, he died soon after in his King's service. Riding on the King's business in the autumn of 1542 he became overheated, fell into a fever, and died. He was buried at Sherborne. No stone marks his resting-place, but his friend and fellow-poet, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, wrote a noble elegy:—
"A hea, where Wisdom mysteries did frame;
Whose hammers beat still, in that lively brain,
As on a stithy* where that some work of fame
Was daily wrought, to turn to Britain's gain.
. . . . . . .
A hand, that taught what might be said in rhyme,
That Chaucer reft the glory of his wit.
A mark, the which (unperfected for time)
Some may approach; but never none shall hit!"
BOOKS TO READ
Early Sixteenth-Century Lyrics (Belle Lettres Series), edited by F. M. Padelford (original spelling).