The author of A Rage for Rock-Gardening: The Story of Reginald Farrer (2004) returns with a nuanced look at the poetry and life of Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542).
Along with just about everyone else in the court of Henry VIII, Wyatt, who brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England, had to master the intricacies of the survival dance in that era—or kneel before the chopping block. (Wyatt somehow survived—barely—his king’s bloody capriciousness.) Shulman charts the choreography of Wyatt’s career during the time of Henry and later. She notes that his reputation as a poet had fallen considerably, but she, among others, is effecting a restoration. She sketches the rise of the Tudors and then rehearses the biographies of the wives of Henry VIII, noting along the way the roles that Wyatt played—or didn’t play—on the marital merry-go-round. Throughout, the author closely examines Wyatt’s various love poems, noting that he wrote not for publication but for circulation among friends and associates. She acknowledges one severe problem: Wyatt’s poems have no dates, so inference is the historian’s closest companion. But Shulman, confronting her daunting task with aplomb and sensitivity, shows us how Wyatt’s lyrics, subtle and layered, can refer to a deer or a woman, a hunt or a courtship. She also examines the courtly love tradition, the influence and status of Chaucer, the psychology of the king and the tangled history of the English Reformation. Readers of Hilary Mantel’s two novels about Thomas Cromwell will enjoy seeing him in a different context (and—spoiler alert—will learn his fate). Shulman also reveals her own considerable lyrical chops: On Anne Boleyn: “With her wit, her dazzle, her ludic, punning Burgundian manners, she melted into his [Henry’s] dream of Albion.”
A gracefully written, thoroughly researched story of an agile and articulate survivor.