Iambic Pentameter Sonnet
Buckle down folks, because we've got a whole lot to cover on this important little issue. Let's jump in right… now.
First and foremost, the meter of this poem is something called iambic pentameter, for the most part. That means five beats per line, each one comprised of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (otherwise known as an iamb). Just check out line 2:
But as for me, alas, I may no more.
Sadly, Wyatt was never known for his metrical regularity (some of his early editors smooth things out, so to speak), so there are plenty of lines that don't exactly fit into this neat little mold.
To show you what we mean, here's line 7:
Fainting I follow. I leave off, therefore.
These lines pose a huge, gigantic… very big problem. We're not even sure about the stresses in that phrase "I leave off there." Let's just assume this is how the line should sound. You'll notice that the first beat is made of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. This little guy is called a trochee, and it is very common, especially at the beginning of a line. Beats 2 and 3 are iambs, but beat four is strange: two stressed syllables together (a.k.a. a spondee). The line then concludes with another trochee.
The poem is full of this kind of metrical play. This doesn't mean Wyatt is sloppy, however. Sophisticated, crafty, or clever is more like it. The spondee in line 7 ("leave off"), for example, is very "heavy" or "loud." The stress emphasizes the speaker's decision to desist from hunting. In the same way, the way the word "Fainting" starts the line with a stressed syllable really drives home the point that the speaker is, well, fainting—swooning, falling down in agony. Keep your eyes and ears attuned to these changes in stress to experience the poem on a deeper level. Also check out "Sound Check" for more good stuff on what your ears might pick up.
Now, we told you this poem is a sonnet, so let's talk a little bit more about that. We'll just tell you that the sonnet is a special 14-line poem, usually with one of several standard rhyme schemes. It was invented by this killer Italian poet named Francesco Petrarch. Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, ripped off Petrarch's invention and made it popular among English readers and poets.
As it turns out, Wyatt's poem is actually an imitation or loose paraphrase of Petrarch's Rima 190. Like Wyatt's, Petrarch's poem also features a deer, a guy chasing it who cannot help himself, and letters written in diamonds around her neck. Besides these similarities in content, the two are also formally very similar. Thus, the rhyme scheme of "Whoso List to Hunt" (ABBAABBACDDCEE) is almost identical to Petrarch's, as is the poem's structure (octave followed by sestet).
In this sense, then, Wyatt was planting his poem in ground that Petrarch had already cultivated. At the same time, though, his imitation helped to spawn a tradition. Without Petrarch, there'd be no form for Wyatt to imitate, and also no form for Shakespeare to come along a century later and put his own stamp on. And then where would we all be?