Thursday, 15 November 2012

Thomas Wyatt's 'Whoso List to Hunt', Hilary Mantel, and Sharon Olds


Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more;
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about,
'Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.'

I have just finished reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the Booker-winning novel of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, which has recently been followed by a Booker-winning sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I'm always late to the party; Wolf Hall appeared in 2009 and I have only just read it. I had heard about it before but I have never been very interested in the Tudors (too most of English history, actually) and suspected that it would be either too heavy, or too commercial and romance-novelish. Most historical novels fall into one of those categories, for me.

As it turns out, Wolf Hall is the most enthralling novel that I have read in a very long time and I cannot wait to read Bring Up the Bodies. I always had great difficulty in seeing Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and their entourage as anything but symbols, and not terribly interesting ones at that; caricatures, if anything (just how many jokes about the six wives are there?). But the novel's dense and intimate prose drew me in almost instantly. First appearing as a determined boy with a touching fondness for small dogs, fleeing from an abusive father, in adulthood Cromwell rises to become Henry's closest advisor: '"Sometimes it is a solace to me," Henry says, "not to have to talk and talk. You were born to understand me, perhaps."' Henry and Anne remain somewhat remote, though fascinating, but Cromwell emerges as a brutally intelligent man with an eye to the arc of history and the ability to make its details come about:

...[H]e is looking forward to Easter, the end of Lenten fasting, the end of penitence. There is a world beyond this black world. There is a world of the possible. A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell. He sees it; then he doesn't. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before. (from Wolf Hall)

Wolf Hall also evokes the extreme religious turmoil of the times, where Catholics and "bible men" tangle violently and the fall of the powerful is especially terrible. Cardinal Wolsey is a fabulously vivid character: "If you had interrupted him every night for ten years, and sat sulking and scowling at him on each occasion, you would still be his honoured guest." Wolsey, once Henry's Chancellor, did not succeed in securing the annulment of Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon and went into a kind of exile as a result, dying soon afterward. As for Thomas More, I've disliked him ever since reading Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time and also since my research for a project on William Tyndale, the great Bible translator, who was one of More's mortal enemies and is one of my heroes. I was gratified to find him a self-righteous, sadistic and insinuating character, but his final downfall comes with a surprising dignity. Mantel doesn't make judgments about her characters; she leaves us to decide for ourselves.

Thomas Wyatt, author of 'Whoso List to Hunt', also appears in Wolf Hall. His relationship with Anne Boleyn remains rather ambiguous, as the poem suggests. It is considered virtually certain that the poem is about Wyatt's love for Anne Boleyn. This poem has fascinated me for a long time. It is an exquisitely written tangle of emotional and erotic exhaustion, its central hunting metaphor drawing in a whirlwind of associations: lines such as "in a net I seek to hold the wind" and "wild for to hold, though I seem tame" could refer to the almost hopeless pursuit, or to an act of passion and possession. It is strange and beautiful and the poet's desperation clearly comes across.

Rather fortuitously - I think - I just received the latest Poetry Book Society Choice, which is Sharon Olds' Stag's Leap. A remarkable contemporary American poet, Sharon Olds is best known for writing about relationships with extraordinary frankness, honesty and precision. This latest collection is about the end of her thirty-year marriage, when her husband left her for another woman.

I had been thinking about 'Whoso List to Hunt' because of reading Wolf Hall and the title poem, at least, of Stag's Leap seemed to join with it in a wonderful synchronicity.

...When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it's I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver.

(from 'Stag's Leap')

Later in the same poem, Olds shows a graciousness I very much doubt I would have under the circumstances:

...Oh leap,
leap! Careful of the rocks! Does the old
vow have to wish him happiness
in his new life, even sexual
joy? I fear so, at first, when I still
can't tell us apart.

(from 'Stag's Leap')

I feel that there is a direct line between 'Whoso List to Hunt' and this poem; in both poems, around the metaphor of the hunt and the fleeing deer, there is an enormity of desire and pain.

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