Sunday, 27 March 2011

Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy by Nicola Shulman: review

Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy
(Short Books, £20)

Thomas Wyatt’s poems are, for Nicola Shulman, like circuit boards: make the right connections and they light up; get it wrong and they lie inert. The Henrician court was a place where poems were actual physical objects which were passed around, just as lovers would give each other hearts. (The court comes alive in Shulman’s account; a place full of blusterers and sycophants, of brilliant wits and gallants and of fulsome fools).

She argues convincingly in this erudite yet elegant study that Wyatt’s poems are codes – supremely artistic ways of expressing ‘grievance, reproach, disappointment and unrequited desire.’ The people who received the physical object of the poem would know the keys to unlocking the texts; that is why to later generations (she says) the poems seem flat. Her analysis is graceful and intelligent, in particular a reading of ‘Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind’, which traces a hidden message about Anne Boleyn, and one where she shows how Wyatt’s ‘latinesque compression’ reveals another layer of meaning.

Shulman has a gift for detail and for vivid phraseology; Henry Howard was chiefly known for ‘being fabulous’, for instance, while Henry VII is imagined ‘hosing down the fires’ with his account book under his arm. Her usage of punctuation is particularly to be commended: here she is on Francis Weston, the youngest of the men arrested on suspicion of adultery with Anne Boleyn – “‘but young, skant out of the shell’, and his life is well described in the debts he died owing: to his fletcher, his embroiderer, his tailor, his barber, his groom, his sadler, his shoemaker; to the woman who provided the tennis balls; to the top court goldsmith, for losses at cards and dice to such as Francis Bryan, Thomas Wiltshire, the King.’ The list in itself conjures up such a moving and poignant image of this wet-behind-the-ears boy, living, loving and party-going, gaming and hunting; one can see him stroking his horse’s head as its new saddle is fitted, or considering designs for a necklace to be given to a sweetheart, or laying his cards down and nodding politely as the King wins at cards again (which, for me at any rate, immediately conjures still further a picture of Queen Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter, in Blackadder, playing ball with Lord Percy: ‘Who’s Queen, Percy?’) Back to the punctuation: it’s those elegant semi-colons, adding weight to ‘the woman who provided the tennis balls’, gently emphasising this unknown personage whose life added to the gaiety of Weston’s, and who would no doubt be deeply affected by his death. The image of Weston stays with me particularly, across the centuries. He was collateral in a near-psychotic game of politics, his new arrows left unsharpened, his saddle gathering dust.

The complexities of Henrician intrigue are laid out by Shulman in easily comprehensible fashion so that even a novice such as I can grasp them; and through it all stalks Wyatt, a man of ‘deepe wit’ whose poems express such turbulence, though so carefully composed. This finely considered, silver-veined biography is a decorous and wise monument: now,as Shulman provides the right circuitry, his poems will spark up for us all.

There is also an excellent index with entries for 'cats, evidence of altruism', and 'pomegranates as political statement.' What more could one want?

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