Whoso List to Hunt Introduction
In A Nutshell
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 popularized 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?
To connect with older poems—and this one's half a millennium old—we like to think about what the modern-day equivalent would look like.
So...what would happen if a contemporary male poet wrote about the woman he wanted but couldn't have—because she happened to be involved with a royal?
You'd end up with something like...a song written by Ed Sheeran about how he really wanted to be with Kate Middleton, but Prince William was in his way.
Doesn't sound that ancient anymore, huh?
Okay, maybe Ed Sheeran and Kate Middleton aren't your #1 ship, but you get the picture. We may not have sonnets and beheadings these days—at least not as many—but we still have people wanting what they can't have.
And we're guessing we always will.