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The Renaissance Period Of English Literature

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2347 words Published: 17th May 2017

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The Renaissance Period injected English literature with a new and innovative life; it was a time for rediscovering classical texts, coining new words, and both translating and imitating classical forms. This inspiration arose from Ancient Greek, Roman and Italian writers, such as Homer, Virgil and Petrarch. These writers inspired new poets of 17th century England to look towards old literature, with the intention to improve new literature; the Renaissance Period was thus a time for rebirth.

Thomas Wyatt was greatly influenced by the Italian poet, Petrarch, and consequently, he derived the sonnet from him, introducing it into English poetry. He was thus inspired by Petrarch, and translated many of his sonnets into English, yet adapted them to create some originality and also to reflect his own personal experiences.

Wyatt’s poetry was chiefly designed to entertain, for example, ‘Whoso List to Hunt? I know where is an hind’ is a courtly poem, written for a distinct audience and predominantly intended to entertain the court. However, whilst King Henry VIII ruled the throne, many writers found it difficult to talk about courtly matters through their poetry, since they could easily be imprisoned for offending the King. Sir Thomas More comments on this dilemma, stating that, “By the indirect approach you must seek and strive to the best of your power to handle matters tactfully…” (710). His use of the word ‘tactfully’ is intended to mean that writers had to be subtle yet skilful if they were to convey their intended message without becoming imprisoned. This was often achieved through the power of translation.

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Wyatt’s ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ is a reinterpretation of Petrarch’s Rime 190 and thus not a direct translation, since the poem is thought to indirectly refer to Wyatt’s love for Anne Boleyn, with ‘Caesar’ representing King Henry VIII. The narrator in the poem is contending with his king for the ‘doe’, ensuing in a more direct and potentially precarious series of consequences for the narrator.

The 1534 Treason Act, stated that anybody could be executed for what they said or wrote, yet Wyatt avoided being accountable for his words through the beauty of translation, proverbs, and ambiguity. For example, in 1541, one of the chief accusations against Wyatt was that he said in conversation with his friends in Spain that he ‘feryd that the king shulde be caste owte of a Cartes arse’ (life and letters p189), which was a way of hanging common criminals. Susan Bridgen states, that Wyatt was “judged at last upon the fine distinction between whether he had said whether the king would be ‘cast’ out of a cart’s arse, like a thief as he was hanged, or simply ‘left’ out, his interests ignored. His fate hung upon judgements between tenses and syllables.” (p29 of article) Although he was put in prison for this, he defended and ultimately saved himself by claiming that ‘the cart’s arse’ was proverbial, and thus not literal. This is a further reason why Wyatt uses ambiguity in the majority of his poetry; he cannot be punished if there is no set meaning behind his poems. ‘…’ states that “in order to express at the same time the code of courtly love and his own problems, he had to eliminate from his poetry everything which was too narrow and specific in one way or the other”. Translation and imitation thus shaped the poetry of the Renaissance, since both these forms acted as a mask to hide the poet conveying the instability of both courtly life, and courtly love, whilst at the same time improving the quality of English Literature during this period.

Through Wyatt’s translated version of ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, it is apparent that he has used his own opinions and emotions to transform the interpretation, yet his reinterpretation of Petrarch’s original is still referred to as a translation. Despite Wyatt having to write discreetly, ‘…’ writes that “probably the necessity of discipline to use a technique of camouflage imposed a useful artistic discipline on him”. Wyatt carefully adapts Petrarch’s form and manipulates the original content to cunningly convey his message. The reader can then interpret the poem as they wish; Wyatt thus aims to entertain, teach, and convey a sense of morality.

When considering Harold Bloom’s statement in this essay question, he argues that influenced poets are ‘Original, though not therefore necessarily better’. I would disagree with this statement simply because although Wyatt uses Petrarch’s idea of the ‘doe’ as an allegory, he was the first poet to adopt the notion to introduce the sonnet into English Literature. Moreover, in order to convey his message in the correct manner for his time, he had no choice but to ‘translate’ Petrarch’s poem, because he would have been hanged otherwise for his offensive message to the King. Thus, perhaps Wyatt’s version is superior, because of his cunning and initiative to make his intended statement about his feelings and court-life in such a discreet manner. Moreover, the translation of any classical literature into English in the Renaissance period was highly respected. Thus, unlike a contemporary poet of today, Wyatt did not need to distinguish himself as an ‘original poet’. Daalder (Joost Daalder (Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems, edited by Joost Daalder (1975)) correctly states that ‘we should not admire something because it is new or old, but because it is intrinsically important and appealing’ and Wyatt certainly makes his poem engaging, since it was so controversial for its time.

Wyatt’s sonnet is composed of an octave stating an idea or dilemma, followed by a sestet, suggesting a resolution to this problem. The octave in Wyatt’s translation of ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, depicts the unsuccessful pursuit of the hind, whereas the sestet clarifies that the reason the hunter is unable to catch his prey is because she is promised to somebody else; capturing her would jeopardise both the hind and the hunter. Whilst Wyatt uses the same rhyme scheme as Petrarch for the octave in his sonnets, abbaabba, he adapts Petrarch’s sestet so it consists of a quatrain and a couplet, which infuses his sonnet with originality. However, by changing Petrarch’s structure, some of the rhymes become irregular, particularly because in the Renaissance period, specific words would have been pronounced differently. In Wyatt’s sonnet, ‘wind’ (signifying ‘windy’), with a short ‘i’ sound, is designed to rhyme with the long drawn-out assonance of the ‘i’ in the words ‘hind’, ‘behind’, and ‘mind’. Similarly, in the final couplet of the sonnet, the extended sounding of the letter ‘a’ of ‘tame’ is expected to rhyme with the ‘a’ in the word ‘am’ which is a much more abrupt sound. Thus, if we read this couplet aloud, in order to generate a rhyme, we have to alter how we would usually pronounce the word, which potentially causes a problem for a modern reader of this Renaissance poem.

Petrarch’s Rime 190 represents an unattainable mistress through the image of ‘a pure-white doe’ (1), whilst Wyatt’s ‘hind’ (1) represents his own love; thus both women referred to are unapproachable objects of desire. Petrarch’s use of the word ‘white’ to describe the deer literally translates to ‘candida’ in Italian, a word which has strong connotations with purity and innocence. Thus, the depiction of both the courtly hunt and of courtly love clearly represents the dangers involved. Wyatt also modifies the honest and innocent deer in Petrarch’s version into a more morally ambiguous animal. By using the original content of the sonnet to his advantage, Wyatt cunningly ensures that his poem operates on the surface as a translation whilst still expressing his own message.

Wyatt invests his translation with multiple layers of meaning through the description of the words of Caesar, written about the deer’s neck, which is ‘graven with diamonds in letters plain’. The sign thus suggests eternal beauty, but also loyalty because she is promised to Caesar. The ‘diamond’ conveys a sense of coldness too, highlighting a lack of virtue, which increases the tension between the speaker and the object of desire, because Caesar is controlling her. In both Petrarch’s original sonnet and Wyatt’s translation, the domination of ownership has protected the deer from being captured, and this image works to Wyatt’s advantage; he is acknowledging that Anne Boleyn is betrothed to Henry V111. Wyatt thus uses the line “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am” (13) to signify that the deer belongs to somebody who is greater and more controlling than the narrator. Again, Wyatt has used the original content of Petrarch’s sonnet and adapts the symbolism to his personal situation, conveying his feelings subtly and indirectly.

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Furthermore, Wyatt’s oblique translation imparts a different tone than Petrarch’s original. For example, through his language, the attitude of the hunter conveys a sense of lethargy and futility to the reader, ‘Yet I may by no means my wearied mind/Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore/Fainting I follow’ (5-7). A further poignant image which depicts the speaker as completely helpless and unable to catch the object of his desire is conveyed just before the sestet, ‘Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind’ (8). He attempts to catch her, but the words, ‘I seek’ suggest a continued effort of vain pursuit; the speaker is persistently chasing only the wind, because experience has taught him that both wind and deer are equally impossible to catch.

This response, however, is not apparent in Petrarch’s original, ‘I left work to follow her at leisure’ (6) and ‘written with topaz’ (10) which represents chastity. These phrases convey a tone of satisfaction and pleasure, since the words ‘leisure’ and ‘topaz’ bear more positive connotations than ‘wearied’ and ‘fainting’. Despite Wyatt’s speaker conveying complete exhaustion, he is unable to forget the deer, whereas at the end of Petrarch’s sonnet, his speaker ‘fell in the stream and she was gone’, indicating a sense of closure.

Through the imagery of hunting this deer, Wyatt is perhaps signifying the fact that because he is part of the court and under the charge of Henry V111, he is unable to leave the court. Thus, his persistent pursuit of the deer reflects the fact that he cannot leave the court; he is forced to persevere with court-life, which he is now starting to see as both meaningless and unsatisfying, but also dangerous. This could be an indirect criticism of the court, serving as a message of council to his fellow courtiers. Moreover, he is stating that although he is unable to escape from this treacherous environment, through his poetry, he can counsel and advise others against it, whilst subtly expressing the threats he perceives in court-life. By imitating Petrarch’s Rime 190, he is able to convey this message ambiguously, and if accused, he can state that his poem has been misinterpreted.

The tone of Wyatt’s version of the poem is also depicted through the manipulation of the sounding of words. Wyatt deliberately emphasises the sound of the repetitive letter ‘h’ on the words ‘hunt’ and ‘hind’ in order to draw attention to these words, whilst creating a harsh tone to signify the narrator’s frustration at being unable to catch the deer. Moreover, Wyatt chooses to use words with open vowel sounds also in his poem, for example, ‘where’, ‘as’, and ‘alas’. These words, when the poem is read out loud, cause the reader make a sighing noise, which conveys the poems tone of submission and despair. These sighing noises, and the sibilance on the letter ‘s’ create a despondent mood, and portrays Wyatt’s feelings of apathy and dejection to the reader, whilst still remaining inside the precincts of a translation.

Moreover, Wyatt uses enjambment, leading the reader to be almost out of breath if reading the poem out loud, ‘Yet may I by no means my wearied mind/Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore/Fainting I follow’ (5-7), which mimics the speaker ‘fainting’. Petrarch used enjambment in his version too, ‘Like the miser who looking for his treasure/Sweetens with that delight his bitterness’. The juxtaposition between bitter and sweet also highlights the speaker’s dilemma. The enjambment in Wyatt’s poem could purely be taken from Petrarch’s translation, but it figures as highly appropriate in Wyatt’s version, because it reflects his own fatigued and drained outlook on his hopeless situation. The enjambment mimics Wyatt’s pursuit of his desire, whilst revealing his own sentiments in his poem.

Through imitating Petrarch’s poem, Wyatt successfully creates ambiguity within his poem, in which it is possible to read a more personal meaning without making any sort of direct statement that would implicate the poet. Wyatt uses words that can be interpreted in many ways; each word, sound, and image functions on both the literal sense of its translation, yet also on a symbolic level to depict Wyatt’s personal sorrow.


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