Analysis of “Who So List To Hunt” by Sir Thomas Wyatt

The poem “Who So List To Hunt,” by Sir
Thomas Wyatt is very often studied, and that’s in part because it’s one of the
first sonnets in the English language, but also because Sir Thomas Wyatt gives
us a very interesting and powerful perspective on the court life under King
Henry VIII. So we’ll talk both about the form of the poem — what goes
into it — and also about the drama that is part of what is being described here. Before we get to “Who So List To Hunt,” however, we should have a quick look at
the poem that inspired Sir Thomas Wyatt. This is Sonnet 190 by the Italian
poet Petrarch. Petrarch was writing in the
14th century, and he was writing sonnets to a woman named Laura. Laura seems
to be alluded to here in this poem as well — in the reference to the laurel’s
shade. This poem is very much what we might call a dream vision. It’s a kind of
allegorical dream vision, in which every detail
somehow seems symbolic. We have a white hind (a deer), two gold horns, green grass,
two streams, it’s springtime … Everything somehow seems to have some symbolic
resonance. If you look, for instance, at this idea of the two streams, it seems
like the hind (the deer) is in some kind of paradise-like setting between two
streams. If we think of the Garden of Eden set between the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers, as has often been suggested, then we can see that the
poet who is not between these two rivers is quite distant. The hind is
inaccessible. The second set of four lines here refers to the poet or the
speaker as a miser, as somebody who hoards money, who is guilty of avarice.
This introduces the idea of sin, so there’s a theological aspect to this
poem that you will not find to the same extent in Wyatt’s poem.
Wyatt’s poem is much more secular in a sense. It doesn’t focus on this
theological angle very much. So Petrarch is unable to get to this hind and in
fact there is written on a collar around her neck “Touch me not … it pleased my Lord to set me free.” We don’t know who this Lord is, but it could be her husband …
it could also however be God. If she is meant for some special purpose, if
she’s supposed to be chaste, let’s say, then it’s possible that this is a
message that Petrarch is not to have her. Finally, [and] as a result, he falls into
the water, which is somewhat comical, and she vanished. She’s gone. It’s almost
as if the vision, the dream, vanishes with this as well. That
should give us some context then for Wyatt’s poem. Let’s go back here now and the
first thing we should talk about really is the form of this poem. What kind of a
form are we talking about here? First of all, we know it’s a sonnet, so it has
fourteen lines, but the rhyme scheme, even though it’s similar to what Petrarch
gives us, is a little bit different. When you compare the Petrarchan sonnet with
the Shakespearean sonnet (which comes later of course) and then you compare
that with what Wyatt is doing, you can see that Wyatt is closer to the
Petrarchan sonnet, where we have an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet. And the poetic turn, the moment of dramatic reversal or the movement
towards the conclusion, tends to come between the octave and a sestet, whereas
with Shakespeare it comes typically later — just before the rhyming couplet.
What you can see here then is that Wyatt tends to follow Petrarch, but he does
add that rhyming couplet. So there’s more of an emphasis on being witty and
clever at the end. And that foreshadows what we eventually get with
Shakespeare. Another thing we can talk about here is the meter — so what kind of
rhythm do we have here. And when we’re talking about Petrarch, Petrarch tends to use hendecasyllabic meter. It’s a hard
word to say, but all it means is that there are 11 syllables per line. Wyatt is starting to move us closer to iambic pentameter, which is that ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum rhythm. And we have 10 syllables per line. Of course he doesn’t do this entirely consistently.
First of all, the iambic stress is very irregular. You can probably hear that
if you say it. It’s not “who SO list TO hunt…” It’s off right from the beginning. But also some of the lines aren’t exactly regular. If you look for
instance at lines 1 and 13 and 14 … … just count them out and see if you can come to 10, because I don’t think
it quite works. What you can say then about that is that maybe this is Wyatt
experimenting with a new form and he doesn’t quite get it and it’s very rough. Or you could say, “well no, he’s trying to play with it and he really wants to
mimic the natural speech accents of the the English language, and so it seems
very authentic and conversational, and he aims to do this.” There’s lots of
disagreement about this among scholars whether this is accidentally bad or
whether it’s on purpose and really gives us a sense of a colloquial kind of voice.
Okay, one more thing we can talk about in terms of form and that’s this use
of what’s called the caesura. The caesura is a … break in the middle
of a line, and you can see that quite a bit in this poem. There are quite a few
lines that seem to break in the middle. You can see it in the rhyming
couplet for instance. But the most important one is right in the middle
where he says “Fainting I followe. I leave off therefore.” And that caesura I think
is especially important because that seems to be where he breaks from what came before and he starts off with a new direction, with a new point to
make. To give you the political background next to this poem, this poem
is probably about Anne Boleyn, a woman that Sir Thomas Wyatt was in
love with. The problem for him was that King Henry VIII, starting in the 1520’s already, was also in love with Anne and eventually he
ended up marrying her. However, in 1536 he had Anne arrested and then executed and Wyatt himself went to prison as well. It’s even possible
that he watched her execution from prison. That means then that courting her,
pursuing her, must have been very dangerous. And that’s what this poem is
about. In this poem, then, everything is about movement, whereas Petrarch’s dream vision is much more static, here we have Wyatt hunting for the deer, and he’s
trying to pursue her just as King Henry VIII is doing as well. We read then,
“Who so list to hount, I know where is an hynde,” and this word “list” means “likes” or “desires to.” If you want to go hunting I can tell you where there’s a deer, “But as
for me, helas (or we would say “alas”) I may no more: / The vayne travail hath
wearied me so sore. I ame of theim that farthest commeth behinde.” I’m so tired, I’m the last in the party, and the word “vain” here (which is repeated later) means kind
of useless or empty. So it’s an empty pursuit. “Yet may I by no meanes my
wearied mynde / Drawe from the Diere.” So I’m still obsessed about her. I can’t
withdraw myself. I can’t stop thinking about her. “But as she fleeth afore, / Faynting I followe.” And this is such a great line because you get these
repeated “f”s here. You get this alliteration across the line break. You can almost hear him panting: “fleeth afore / Faynting I folowe.” And then we get that caesura and you can
probably see the significance symbolically because he says “I leve of
therefore.” Well, he is leaving off with the line. He doesn’t even make it halfway
across the line before he needs to take a breath, before he needs to stop. That signifies the fact that he can no longer pursue her. He writes, then, “I leve of therefore, / Sins in a nett I seek to hold the wynde.”
This is an image he borrows from Petrarch, this idea that capturing the
wind in a net is useless and you might as well try to pursue this deer. “Who list
her hount” — we repeat our initial line. Who wants to hunt her “I put him owte of dowbte.” I will confirm to him, I’ll make sure that there’s no doubt about this. “As
well as I [he] may spend his tyme in vain.” Just like me you can hunt for all you
want to, but it’s going to be a vain pursuit. And now we get that image
of what’s written on the collar around her neck and it says, “Noli me tangere,”
which is Latin for “do not touch me.” Do not touch me, “for Cesars I ame.” And this
reference to Caesar makes it very clear that Caesar is the Emperor, or in this
case the king, King Henry VIII. I belong to Caesar, “And wylde for to hold,
though I seme tame.” Now this last line is fascinating because perhaps this is also
a reference to the fact that even Caesar cannot tame the deer. So far if we’re
thinking about how the woman, how Anne Boleyn is portrayed in the sonnet, she
seems to lack agency. But the final line does raise the question, is she wild? Is
she independent? Does she have any power of her own? And maybe this is saying even to the king: you will not be able to tame her. It’s hard to say. So that is the poem
“Who so list to hount” — one of the finest early sonnets in the English language,
and I hope that you’ve now understood how it relates also to its political and
historical background.

1 thought on “Analysis of “Who So List To Hunt” by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *