Friday, October 15, 2010

Wyatt at the Tower

Poets write from all sorts of experiences. But imagine the experience of seeing your true love beheaded for adultery from a tower prison cell, along with four innocent people accused of being her lover, while you, the only one who actually slept with her, will soon be set free?

That’s the occasion of the following poem, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei (Innocence Truth Faith Wyatt my enemies surround my soul). His lover was of course the executed queen Anne Boleyn, the Helen of British Protestantism, who Wyatt managed to bed while staying in King Henry VIII’s favor AND be a poet AND avoid being beheaded at the same time, a truly remarkable feat (Those Tudors were nasty to poets, as Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex can attest).

One would think that such a profound experience would disabuse someone of the vanities of ambition, and one would be right. This is a pitiless dissection of all the ways people sell out their integrity to gain power over others. What makes it particularly poignant is the process by which virtue is finally lost, by expending the good within in a futile attempt to get power to answer to it.

Wyatt’s customary style—prosodic virtuosity that isn’t afraid to enunciate itself—turns muted here, making the Latin refrain at the end of every stanza (“circa Regna tonat,” who reigns thunder) sound shocking. This is not about sharpening the modern finger of blame and asking Henry VIII what was he thinking. It is a question that escapes an answer if one is honest, if one, as Wyatt seems to, takes responsibility for consequences. It was assumed back then that all were one, so all shared the common shame together. My how times have changed.

“Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.“