Skip to main content

Deflected Eyes



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.


And as I watched I saw his eyes look past,
past me, into the past – or was it yet
to come about?  That glance will now outlast
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.


Living in tumultuous and treacherous times, he had to watch which way the wind was blowing and change sides appropriately to survive. Little wonder then that his eyes needed to take in everything. 
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. 









Popular posts from this blog

The Three Hares

  The Three Hares We continue on our way running, running, running around held together tip to tip so I can hear what she can hear as well as her. And the other follows me in front of her – we are joined up by our ears so we follow, lead and follow running, running, running around we continue on our way. Running, running, running around – no cause for worry – what's to come has already been. The future's past – watch us here – we're going nowhere – the last is first and first is last. Our present moment sees us still although we seem to race – running, running, running around we continue. On our way running, running, running around hearing your persistent questions – why do you keep on asking? We cannot tell you any more. May you share your senses and find soft silence at your centre which is so close, while you go on running, running, running around. The turning of the year, with the various thoughts about the past and the future that c


I love the word Aftermath, with its apparent Anglo-Saxon simplicity. I read that it means after the mowing, perhaps a second or later mowing; more specifically, it can refer to the crop of grass which springs up after the mowing earlier in the summer. Even if the quality of the grass be criticised as not having the fragrance or sweetness of the first crop, or worse, dismissed as 'the bloomless aftermath', it is after all new growth – a reminder of what has been, and of what is yet to come. Aftermath Yes, the grass will grow again. There will be another season here upon these same old fields where sheep shall safely graze again as if it were the first occasion.   Fresh growth of flimsy blades will spring to feed a new-born generation here once more, in time, expected along with others, all those others drawn forth to prosper in the sun.   And some who left will come again remembering this place. A pair of swallows from the past will score the sky above the

Happy Christmas!

Christmas – or if you prefer, Solstice, Hanukkah, or just This Special Time… Stop now.  For a moment, wait. And look.  From here you can see far. In this direction, where we’ve been – the climb, the ups and downs. Now turn around. There before you lies the future.  At the summit of the year there’s time to rest, and be refreshed – let’s gather here, so we may share each other’s company, look forward to the new arrivals, lives to come travelling into this misty landscape, and in our brightness bring to mind those no longer in our group. So drop your rucksack, get your breath back the old year lies behind – for now let’s all enjoy the present gift-wrapped here before us. I’m quite sure this little poem has no great literary, let alone poetic merit, but hey we don’t always have to be polished, clever, neat or profound. Or original. Or elegant. Especially not when you’ve just got to the top of a mountain. But there is a def