This poem is a convention setter that defines the twin nature of courtly love – the burning passion being set against the misery of rejection (or at least noble assumption of rejection).
Wyatt explores his oxymoronic emotions as he at once brought to life by the girl of his desires and at the same time consumed with grief that she does not recognise or respond to his affections.
scape – just a shortened form of escape;
plain – this stumped me for a while, but it an archaic verb meaning something like complain.
I find no peace, and all my war is done.
I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;
And nought I have, and all the world I season.
That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not—yet can I scape no wise—
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion.
Without eyes I see, and without tongue I plain.
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health.
I love another, and thus I hate myself.
I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain;
Likewise displeaseth me both life and death,
And my delight is causer of this strife.
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)
An old favourite of mine, Sir Thomas Wyatt featured in the previous collection with an extremely juicy and scandalous poem called They Flee From Me, Who Sometime Did Me Seek, which allegedly was about his spurned affections for Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII.
Wyatt was a royal advisor who apparently had an eye for the ladies. A massive hypocrite, he divorced his wife on the grounds that she’s done the dirty with another courtier. After this he seems to have had free rein with the ladies and this poem relates the feelings of love associated with the thrill of the chase rather than developed, long-term love.
This poem is an English take on a classical Petrarchan model of courtly love and is meant to explore the concept of love rather than being strictly autobiographical, referring to a specific point in Wyatt’s life. In fact, it might be fair to say that this is a close, but not exact translation of Francesco Petrarca’s (the chap who Petrarchan sonnets are named for) Love’s Inconsistency. If you want to explore how similar the poems are, have a read of this excellent piece of analysis.
This is squarely focused on love, but not what I’d class as real love. In fact I’d go as far as to say this is more about lust and romantic love than anything else. Wyatt feels hot and steamy towards some young strumpet, but you can imagine once he’d had his way he would probably cool down pretty rapidly! Men are pigs*!
* Men are not pigs. Well, some are. Wyatt is a pig!
This is an easy one to sum up.
Wyatt is all flustered about some lady or other. He is full of conflicting feelings: he is excited and passionate about this lady, but at the same time he is filled with doubt and misery as he fears rejection and unfulfilled lust!
Language and techniques
You’ve first got to deal with the consistent use of oxymoron throughout the poem.
Wyatt uses multiple conflicting concepts to explore his understanding of romantic love in the opening quatrain. He opens with the imagery of ‘all my war is done’ which represents his battle for the subject’s affection, which he feels has exhausted him and defeated. However, despite this feeling of defeat he says ‘I find no peace’ implying that his obsession remains and his heart and his passions cannot accept loss.
This is immediately supported with the conflicting yet simultaneous feelings of ‘fear and hope’. This links directly with the prior imagery as he fears rejection and defeat in his pursuit, but he simply cannot let this go as the power of hope is just too strong. These twin emotions can be seen as the opposite end of the spectrum like ‘burn[ing]’ and freez[ing]’, which demonstrate the double-edged sword that is love (particularly passion or lust). Our passion burns in our chest, while the fear of this being unrealised causes misery and an inescapable feeling of loneliness.
Think about the last time you had a crush. If you’re anything like a young Mr Sir, you spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this other person, but never actually bother to tell them how you feel – just in case they tell you to bugger off. You build them up in your head and imagine all sorts of scenarios (don’t be dirty!) of your future life together, but at the same time you are depressed because you have not realised this and are too scared to do anything about it. Does this sound like you now? Don’t worry, it works out in the end… and if not, there is always Tinder and that sort of thing ;).
Anyway, back to the poem.
Next we are given the imagery of a bird who can ‘fly above the wind’, which represents the inspiration and feeling of excitement and utter freedom that being in love (fancying someone) brings. However, we are pulled back to earth as he ‘can… not arise’ because his love is not reciprocated. Again Wyatt states this twice in different ways to emphasise the idea that love presents the conflicting feelings of being free and owning ‘all the world’, while at the same time having the power to crush us and make us feel as if we have ‘nought’.
The second quatrain explores one idea in more detail, again a oxymoronic concept. At once he feels ‘holdeth’ and ‘holdeth not’ in a prison as he is both free to do what he wants – as he is not bound to this girl – but at the same time his passion means ‘yet can I scape no wise’, so he is as good as trapped by his own emotions. This is presented as a state of purgatory as he cannot ‘live nor die’ as his feelings are unrealised, but refuse to diffuse.
If we had any doubt as to the power his passion has over him, the line at the end of this quatrain confirms that he sinks so low in his melancholy that his feelings ‘giveth me occasion’ to seek death. Thus his passions are so strong that he feels death might be his only escape.
I was stumped for a while by the beginning of the third quatrain, but once I’d figured it out I loved it. He sees ‘without eyes’ because he is delusion as a result of his passion. A modern-day equivalent or closely related phrase would be seeing with rose-tinted spectacles. He is not viewing the situation with reason, but is blinded by his feelings – I’m not trying to say she’s not worthy of his passion and he is blind to her ugliness, but rather that his actions are not rational.
While he sees her as perfection and is completely, irrationally obsessed with her, his feelings of melancholy generated from his feelings being unrequited are met ‘without tongue I plain’. So despite feeling so lovesick, his doesn’t moan out loud or make his feelings known, he just wallows in his misery without revealing his affections. He expresses this beautifully at the end of the quatrain as he feels his love ‘feed[s] me in sorrow’, thus recognising how his attitude towards love is creating his misery, but in the same line he also acknowledges his lack of reason as he ‘laugh[s]’ at his suffering as it is clearly without reason or logic as he hasn’t even revealed his affections.
Idiots! All people are idiots! Thank God for alcohol as I think this is the only way to overcome this state of affairs – this happens to be the only way I was able to reveal my love for my wife!
Wyatt links again to death suggesting that he ‘desire[s] to perish’ in order to cure his heart, but at the same time he longs for his ‘health’, which could only be restored with his love finally being requited.
In the third line of this final quatrain we have another ironic statement as the fact that ‘I love another’ causes him to realise ‘I hate myself’. This sums up the whole poem perfectly. The only reason he is in such a state of despair is because he is chasing love and thus the extreme high of realised love is contrasted by the extreme low of unrealised love.
The poem ends with a couplet that for the first time directly states what is going on. ‘My delight is causer of this strife’ reflects once again that the passion that drives him is also the reason he feels so depressed.
I find the line immediately before this more interesting though. If ‘both life and death’ ‘displeaseth’ him, is he suggesting that he actually quite enjoys his current purgatory. ‘Life’ I would take to represent the realisation of his love, while ‘death’ represents the end of all hope. What do you reckon?
Alternatively, this could be more simple and him moaning that he wouldn’t be happy in death, as in life currently, without her.
This is also a cracking piece analysing this poem, worth a read if you still have questions.
You’ll read lots of stuff about the reinvented form of sonnets here and the pioneering nature of Wyatt’s approach – this is seen as crucial in the development of the Shakespearean sonnet – but I don’t think it is a little hard to make much of this in relation to the meaning of the poem.
Obviously we’ve got the oxymoronic, contrasting imagery and ideas. These are always balanced throughout in order to show the twin power of love – to excite and to destroy. At first this is achievement through monosyllabic language choices and short compound sentences. The word choices are used to suggest that love should be a simple concept, but this idea is undermined immediately by the repeating oxymoronic ideas. The repetition suggests that Wyatt is struggling with the idea and is trying to comprehend the complexity of his emotions and the effect they are having on him.
You could also mention that the second quatrain uses enjambment as Wyatt goes back and forth about whether he sees love as being a positive or a negative in terms of his heart. The opening three lines flick back and forward, without allowing much pause to show how conflicted he is. This quick fire struggle gives way to a longing for release and links to the first suggestion of death as a release.
Wyatt repeats this association three times in the final seven lines, emphasising the dark power love can possess. However, finally the idea of it as an escape is defeated as he suggest that even in death he would feel ‘displeaseth’ as he would still long for this lady.
In this poem we are wrestling with our understanding of love, or more specifically passion. At the beginning we are confused and conflicted, but this gives way to a sense of melancholy as the negative consequences of his affection seem to overwhelm Wyatt.