Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein
I’ve always found this drawing haunting.
Holbein used only chalks, pen and ink, with minimal work on everything except the face, especially the eyes. Probably drawn between 1535 and 1537, it has astonishing vitality: I feel an immediacy, as if he were – or is – contemporaneous, and that it is me rather than Holbein, who faces him.
the face so soon to go. We have not met
but still askance he looks. Unblinking gaze,
eye-witness of grave acts beyond my view
I cannot see, nor find the words or phrase
to tell. His face is blank. I must look through
to see the man whose features show no signs
of feelings – sadness, joy, relief or fear –
just cautious observation. Through the lines
the artist drew, his face and I draw near.
The mouth and nose and beard I scrutinise,
but first and last, I see deflected eyes.
Thomas Wyatt, an earlier lover of Anne Boleyn before he had to give way to his friend Henry VIII, was a true Renaissance courtier, being Cambridge educated, an accomplished linguist, fine poet (represented in many an anthology of English poetry) and jouster. Appointed Clerk of the King’s Jewels, he distinguished himself as a diplomat and was knighted.
However, falsely implicated in the trumped-up charges against Anne, and imprisoned in the Tower of London, he had to witness her execution in 1536. This portrait was drawn soon after that.
Even so, before long, he was once again serving the king as ambassador to the Emperor, and even worked later with Henry’s notorious hitman, Thomas Cromwell – he who had set up the fabricated case against Anne, who was himself later to be beheaded.
Wyatt died only some five years after this portrait, aged 39.*
As a poet, along with his contemporary, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey – another who failed to avoid execution – he developed and reinvigorated English poetry, notably the sonnet. So it seemed right for me to use this form, which has shown remarkable resilience and continues to attract modern poets.
In homage to Wyatt, I’ve tried to observe the rules of the so-called Shakespearean sonnet that these Tudor poets established, though Wyatt often flexed the form creatively to suit his own poetic purposes. Essentially, the sonnet favours the expression of individual feeling and a basic single thought, with some development, further reflection and narrative, if not argument.
My poem alludes to some of the events Wyatt experienced, remembering for example the dreadful witnessing of Anne’s execution which affected him deeply, and his diplomatic skills. But mainly, the poem is about my own response and reaction to the Wyatt that Holbein so skilfully presents – an immensely powerful drawing that I find totally convincing. And chilling.
*Alice Oswald, a wonderful interpreter of Wyatt’s poetry, tentatively but credibly suggests in her selection of Wyatt poems (Faber Poetry) that he may have faked his own death… but that’s another story. Sufficient for now to say that Holbein’s portrait caters for such a possibility.