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Graven With Diamonds
The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Poet, Lover, Statesman and Spy in the Court of Henry VIII
By Nicola Shulman
Random House, 368 pages, $20
FIVE centuries after Henry VIII's death in 1547, novels, biographies, histories and films on England's famous serial monogamist, his six wives and the tumultuous years of the English Reformation still find new readers and viewers.
British biographer Nicola Shulman takes readers through the life and times of poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) in her refreshing counterpoint to typical books on Tudor politics and religion.
Some references to Wyatt can be found in Tudor studies by historians Allison Weir, John Guy and David Starkey, but he is relegated to a minor role.
Wyatt's father was a key figure in the Tudor assent to power, and the younger Wyatt spent his life in Henry VIII's elite inner circle. He is best known for creating the English sonnet and was the most acclaimed poet of his era.
This biography revolves around Wyatt's love for Anne Boleyn. It is not certain if Wyatt and Boleyn, who was Henry's second wife, were lovers, but scholars assert several of his poems were written about her before and after her execution.
Shulman's title comes from a plaintive love poem scholar's believe Wyatt wrote for Boleyn, in 1527: "Graven in diamonds with letters plain, / There is written her fair neck round about: / Do not touch me, / Caesar's, I am.
She married Henry VIII in 1533. Boleyn, Shulman believes, rejected Wyatt because he was married and an admitted adulterer (but "not abominable" Wyatt claims). However, the power-seeking Boleyn family would never reject a king for a poet.
Scholars endlessly debate the meaning of Wyatt's courtly love poetry. He was a master of dissembling and, as Shulman discusses, his poems were created for a small circle of people in the Tudor court. Only they could untangle the metaphorical from the literal meaning of the poem, and the meaning changed from person to person depending on how it was presented.
As Hilary Mantel has Thomas Cromwell say in her Booker Prize-winning novel Bring up the Bodies, "There are codes so subtle (in Wyatt's poems) that they change their meaning in half a line, or in a syllable, or in a pause, a caesura."
Life in court was dangerous during the time of the "Tudor Stalin," Shulman's apt nickname for bloody King Henry. Henry had a knack for ferreting out real and imagined treason and his executioner's axe severed tens of thousands of heads over the suspicious King's 36-year reign.
If cardinals and queens were not safe, imagine how easy it would be to separate a poet's head from his shoulders.
In 1536, Wyatt was imprisoned and charged with committing adultery with Boleyn. However, his head was saved due to the intercession of the king's wily counsellor Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell had his own uses for Wyatt's skills in diplomatic equivocation and languages.
Wyatt family lore contended that he witnessed his life love's execution from his Tower of London cell, and it troubled him throughout his life. The words in his haunting poem express this sentiment: "The bell tower showed me such a sight/ that in my head sticks day and night."
His father's death, and being Cromwell's man, made Wyatt rich. But even the cunning Cromwell could not last forever in Henry's fractious court, and in 1540 he was executed for treason. Wyatt was drawn into the intrigue and also charged with treason in 1541.
He managed to escape the axe again, thanks to the intervention of Henry's fifth wife, Catherine Howard. He died a year later of the Black Death; interestingly his son would be beheaded for treason during the reign of "Bloody" Queen Mary.
Winnipeg writer Ian Stewart teaches at Cecil Rhodes School and avoids poetry.