Whoso List to Hunt
On Friday, May 19, 1536, a woman was led to a scaffold outside the Tower of London to be executed. Wearing a grey tunic of some kind, lined with fur, over a red coat, she was clearly a woman of some importance. She was so important, in fact, that the regular executioner wasn't given the job. That honor was extended to one Jean Rombaud, a Frenchman really good with a sword brought in especially for the purpose of beheading the prisoner. After giving a short speech to the assembled crowd, the woman commended herself to God, and was executed. Her name was Anne Boleyn, and she was married to Henry VIII. Yes, she was the queen of England.
Take a second to digest this: Henry VIII, king of England, had his wife executed because she supposedly had extramarital affairs with at least five different men. While Anne Boleyn was most likely innocent of these charges, in those days you couldn't exactly hire a defense attorney, or appeal to the British equivalent of the ACLU. Once Henry VIII decided to go through with it, that was it for Anne Boleyn. While the exact reasons for Henry's decision to dispense with his wife are complex, we do know that he wanted to marry another woman who could actually give him a son and heir (Boleyn could not). You can read more about her here.
While Boleyn probably didn't do anything wrong while she was married to Henry, she is rumored to have had an affair, or at least a sexually charged relationship, with Sir Thomas Wyatt sometime in the 1520s, before she was married to Henry. In 1536 Wyatt himself was also imprisoned in the Tower of London for possibly committing adultery with Anne Boleyn, and he may actually have witnessed her execution from his cell. Because of his myriad connections to the court of Henry, Wyatt was eventually set free, but his travails had a lasting impact on his life.
This is where "Whoso List to Hunt" comes in. While ostensibly about a guy who says he may no longer hunt this wild hind (a female deer) that is impossible to catch, everybody has thought forever that it's really about Wyatt's relationship to Anne Boleyn. She's the hind, he can't resist her, and yet he knows he must because now she belongs to Henry (the "Caesar" of line 13). The consequences of going after the king's property (women and real deer included!) could be disastrous. For example, the five men that supposedly had affairs with Anne Boleyn were all executed as well (Wyatt may have seen these executions, too).
Wyatt didn't publish this poem, or any of the others he wrote, during his lifetime. While many of them appeared in 1557, fifteen years after his death, some—such as "Whoso List to Hunt"—would have to wait many years. Despite the fact that Wyatt wasn't a major player on the literary scene in London in the 1500s, his influence has been profound.
He is often credited, along with the Earl of Surrey, with introducing the sonnet (a 14-line poem) into English. The sonnet was invented by an Italian guy named Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), and "Whoso List to Hunt" is actually a very loose imitation of Petrarch's Sonnet 190, which you can read here. (For more on the history of the sonnet go here.) This poem, then, is not only filled with juicy royal intrigue, but form-wise it's one of the first of its kind.
Why Should I Care?
At your dad's office, there's a really sweet new bicycle that your parents are planning on giving your brother for Christmas. It even has a big tag on it that says "Don't touch! For Bobby." This thing is awesome, with a capital A. It's shiny, new, top-of-the-line—you name it. It's so totally rad, in fact, that one day while your dad is busy you decide to take this bad boy for a spin. It's everything you thought it would be, so good in fact that you keep finding excuses to go to your dad's office to take it for a cruise. You just keep going back to that bike, knowing it will never be your bike.
One day, you go to ride the bike and realize that the tires don't look new anymore, the seat is a bit worn, and the bike now looks slightly used. Oops. This is your bro's bike, and he's gonna be really annoyed if he finds out you rode it. In fact, he's a lot bigger than you so he might actually give you whooping. You decide to "break up" with the bike; you don't want to, but you have to. You think about that bike so much, it's almost like you're in love with it. Hey, stranger things have happened, right?
Sir Thomas Wyatt was once in love with something he couldn't have too, and her name was Anne Boleyn (as in, the queen of England). Well, scholars think he really wanted her; for the last four hundred years just about everybody has said that Boleyn and Wyatt had an affair in the 1520s, or were in love, or had something they shouldn't have had. Whatever Wyatt's feelings were, he had to turn them off once Henry became interested in Anne (sometime around 1526-ish). Going after a girl the king wanted could land you in a lot of trouble, you know.
Okay, we know chasing a girl and chasing a bike are two really different things. But the feelings Wyatt's poem so clearly expresses ("sore," "wearied," etc.) about wanting something he can't have can apply to about a billion different situations. Maybe you're not literally in love with that bike, but that doesn't mean you don't really want it. It also doesn't mean that you shouldn't be really frustrated and upset that you can't have it, or that the consequences of trying it out before its rightful owner could be dangerous. (Remember, your brother is bigger and stronger than you.) So how would you deal? Well, we think reading this poem would be a good place to start. The speaker knows your pain, and shared pain is always easier to cope with. Right?