This manuscript is known as the Book of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt (1503–1542) was a diplomat, courtier and poet. In the roles of diplomat and courtier, he was required to be indirect, cryptic and sometimes evasive – the very qualities we find in his complex poetry.
The opening lines of one of the poems in this manuscript reads, 'What wourde is that that chaungeth not / Though it be tourned and made in twain?' (f. 33v). The lines mean, ‘what word is there that does not change, even when it is turned and cut in half?’ Wyatt’s point is about how words can be turned and changed easily. He knew this better than many.
Wyatt spent his adult life in the court of Henry VIII. This was an environment of intrigue and danger. On 5 May 1536, he was arrested and sent to the Tower of London on charges of treason. There were rumours that he had had an affair with Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. On the 17th of that month, Anne’s supposed lovers were executed at the Tower. In the end, he escaped their fate and was released.
In one poem found here, Wyatt makes reference to 'her that did set our country in a rore', which some scholars have interpreted as a reference to Anne Boleyn. Intriguingly, however, the line has been revised in Wyatt's hand so that the lines seem to refer to a generic brunette. The altered line reads, 'Brunet that set my welth in such a rore' (f. 66v).
Wyatt’s poetry was never printed in his own lifetime. Instead, his verse circulated in manuscripts, amongst a group of friends and acquaintances.
Several manuscripts containing Wyatt's poems survive, but this one is arguably the most important. It contains around 100 of his poems, many of them written in his own hand. Crucially, Wyatt has gone through the manuscript, marking the poems which are his and making changes. This is key, because it is sometimes difficult to be sure of the authorship of the poems attributed to him.
The manuscript is a working document, filled with changes, giving us a window onto Wyatt’s life. As part of his work as a diplomat, he was required to travel in Europe. The manuscript reflects this both in its physical form as well as in its content. An analysis of the inks in the manuscript, for example, shows it was composed over an extended period, in a variety of locations. Above one poem, Wyatt has written the words ‘In Spayne’ (f. 67r) – presumably dating to his time as an ambassador to the Spanish court from 1537–1539. The work of an ambassador was busy, involving lots of travel. One of the poems describes how the diplomat ‘never restes but running day & nyght / ffrome Reaulme to Reaulme from cite street & towne’ [never rests, but running day and night / From realm to realm, from city street and town] (f. 56r).
Wyatt is credited as one of the first poets to use the sonnet form in English. This was very influential for writers, like Shakespeare, who came after him. In his use of the sonnet form, Wyatt was influenced by the work of the 14th century Italian writer Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), or Petrarch. This manuscript contains many sonnets, as well as direct translations from Petrarch’s great verse collection, Il Canzoniere.
After his death, writers and literary critics noted the importance of Wyatt’s contact with European literature. The Elizabethan writer George Puttenham (1529–1590/91) said of Wyatt that by travelling in Europe, he was able to ‘greatly polish’ the ‘rude and homely manner’ of English poetry.