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HOW THE SONNET CAME TO ENGLAND
 UPON a January day in 1527 two gaily decked barges met upon the
Thames. In the one sat a man of forty. His fair hair and beard
were already touched with gray. His face was grave and
thoughtful, and his eyes gave to it a curious expression, for the
right was dull and sightless, while with the left he looked about
him sharply. This was Sir John Russell, gentleman of the Privy
Chamber, soldier, ambassador, and favorite of King Henry VIII.
Fighting in the King's French wars he had lost the sight of his
right eye. Since then he had led a busy life in court and camp,
passing through many perilous adventures in the service of his
master, and now once again by the King's commands he was about to
set forth for Italy.
As the other barge drew near Russell saw that in it there sat
Thomas Wyatt, a young poet and courtier of twenty-three. He was
tall and handsome, and his thick dark hair framed a pale, clever
face which now looked listless. But as his dreamy poet's eyes
met those of Sir John they lighted up. The two men greeted each
other familiarly. "Whither away," cried Wyatt, for he saw that
Russell was prepared for a journey.
"To Italy, sent by the King."
To Italy, the land of Poetry! The idea fired the poet's soul.
"And I," at once he answered, "will, if you please, ask leave,
get money, and go with you."
 "No man more welcome," answered the ambassador, and so it was
settled between them. The money and the leave were both
forthcoming, and Thomas Wyatt passed to Italy. This chance
meeting and this visit to Italy are of importance to our
literature, because they led to a new kind of poem being written
in English. This was the Sonnet.
The Sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, and is perhaps the most
difficult kind of poem to write. It is divided into two parts.
The first part has eight lines and ought only to have two rimes.
That is, supposing we take words riming with love and king for
our rimes, four lines must rime with love and four with king.
The rimes, too, must come in a certain order. The first, fourth,
fifth and eighth lines must rime, and the second, third, sixth,
and seventh. This first part is called the octave, from the
Latin word octo, eight. The second part contains six lines, and
is therefore called the sextet, from the Latin word sex, meaning
six. The sextet may have either two or three rimes, and these
may be arranged in almost any order. But a correct sonnet ought
not to end with a couplet, that is two riming lines. However,
very many good writers in English do so end their sonnets.
As the sonnet is so bound about with rules, it often makes the
thought which it expresses sound a little unreal. And for that
very reason it suited the times in which Wyatt lived. In those
far-off days every knight had a lady whom he vowed to serve and
love. He took her side in every quarrel, and if he were a poet,
or even if he were not, he wrote verses in her honor, and sighed
and died for her. The lady was not supposed to do anything in
return; she might at most smile upon her knight or drop her
glove, that he might be made happy by picking it up. In fact,
the more disdainful the lady might be the better it was, for then
the poet could write the more passionate verses. For all this
love and service was make-believe. It was
 merely a fashion and
not meant to be taken seriously. A man might have a wife whom he
loved dearly, and yet write poems in honor of another lady
without thought of wrong. The sonnet, having something very
artificial in it, just suited this make-believe love.
Petrarch, the great Italian poet, from whom you remember Chaucer
had learned much, and whom perhaps he had once met, made use of
this kind of poem. In his sonnets he told his love of a fair
lady, Laura, and made her famous for all time.
Of course, when Wyatt came to Italy Petrarch had long been dead.
But his poems were as living as in the days of Chaucer, and it
was from Petrarch's works that Wyatt learned this new kind of
poem, and it was he who first made use of it in English. He,
too, like Petrarch, addressed his sonnets to a lady, and the lady
he took for his love was Queen Anne Boleyn. As he is the first,
he is perhaps one of the roughest of our sonnet writers, but into
his sonnets he wrought something of manly strength. He does not
sigh so much as other poets of the age. He says, in fact, "If I
serve my lady faithfully I deserve reward." Here is one of his
sonnets, which he calls "The lover compareth his state to a ship
in perilous storm tossed by the sea."
"My galléy charged with forgetfulness,
Through sharpe seas in winter's night doth pass,
'Tween rock and rock; and eke my foe (alas)
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness:
And every oar a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace,
Of forcéd sighs and trusty fearfulness;
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Have done the wearied cords great hinderance:
Wreathéd with error and with ignorance;
The stars be his, that lead me to this pain;
Drownéd is reason that should me comfort,
And I remain, despairing of the port."
 It is not perfect, it is not even Wyatt's best sonnet, but it is
one of the most simple. To make it run smoothly we must sound
the ed in those words ending in ed as a separate syllable, and we
must put a final e to sharp in the second line and sound that.
Then you see the rimes are not very good. To begin with, the
first eight all have sounds of s. Then "alas" and "pass" do not
rime with "case" and "apace," nor do "comfort" and "port." I
point these things out, so that later on you may see for
yourselves how much more polished and elegant a thing the sonnet
Although Wyatt was our first sonnet writer, some of his poems
which are not sonnets are much more musical, especially some he
wrote for music. Perhaps best of all you will like his satire Of
the mean and sure estate. A satire is a poem which holds up to
scorn and ridicule wickedness, folly, or stupidity. It is the
sword of literature, and often its edge was keen, its point
"My mother's maids when they do sew and spin,
They sing a song made of the fieldish mouse;
That for because her livelod was but thin
Would needs go see her townish sister's house.
'My sister,' quoth she, 'hath a living good,
And hence from me she dwelleth not a mile,
In cold and storm she lieth warm and dry
In bed of down. The dirt doth not defile
Her tender foot; she labours not as I.
Richly she feeds, and at the rich man's cost;
And for her meat she need not crave nor cry.
By sea, by land, of delicates the most,
Her caterer seeks, and spareth for no peril.
She feeds on boil meat, bake meat and roast,
And hath, therefore, no whit of charge or travail.'
So forth she goes, trusting of all this wealth
With her sister her part so for to shape,
That if she might there keep herself in health,
To live a Lady, while her life do last.
And to the door now is she come by stealth,
And with her foot anon she scrapes full fast.
Th' other for fear durst not well scarce appear,
Of every noise so was the wretch aghast.
At last she askéd softly who was there;
And in her language as well as she could,
'Peep,' quoth the other, 'sister, I am here.'
'Peace,' quoth the town mouse, 'why speaketh thou so loud?'
But by the hand she took her fair and well.
'Welcome,' quoth she, 'my sister by the Rood.'
She feasted her that joy it was to tell
The fare they had, they drank the wine so clear;
And as to purpose now and then it fell,
So cheered her with, 'How, sister, what cheer.'
Amid this joy befell a sorry chance,
That welladay, the stranger bought full dear
The fare she had. For as she looked ascance,
Under a stool she spied two flaming eyes,
In a round head, with sharp ears. In France
Was never mouse so feared, for the unwise
Had not ere seen such beast before.
Yet had nature taught her after her guise
To know her foe, and dread him evermore.
The town mouse fled, she knew whither to go;
The other had no shift, but wonders sore,
Fear'd of her life! At home she wished her tho';
And to the door, alas! as she did skip
(The heaven it would, lo, and eke her chance was so)
At the threshold her sill foot did trip;
And ere she might recover it again,
The traitor Cat had caught her by the hip
And made her there against her will remain,
That had forgot her poor surety and rest,
For seeming wealth, wherein she thought to reign."
That is not the end of the poem. Wyatt points the moral.
"Alas," he says, "how men do seek the best and find
 the worst."
"Although thy head were hooped with gold," thou canst not rid
thyself of care. Content thyself, then, with what is allotted
thee and use it well.
This satire Wyatt wrote while living quietly in the country,
having barely escaped with his life from the King's wrath. But
although he escaped the scaffold, he died soon after in his
King's service. Riding on the King's business in the autumn of
1542 he became overheated, fell into a fever, and died. He was
buried at Sherborne. No stone marks his resting-place, but his
friend and fellow-poet, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, wrote a
"A head, where Wisdom mysteries did frame;
Whose hammers beat still, in that lively brain,
As on a stithy where that some work of fame
Was daily wrought, to turn to Britain's gain.
A hand, that taught what might be said in rhyme,
That Chaucer reft the glory of his wit.
A mark, the which (unperfected for time)
Some may approach; but never none shall hit!"
BOOKS TO READ
Early Sixteenth-Century Lyrics (Belle Lettres Series), edited by
F. M. Padelford (original spelling).