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Whoso List to Hunt: Modern English Translation
original poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder
with a modern English translation, paraphrase and analysis of theme, style and plot by Michael R. Burch

In addition to two modernized versions of the classic sonnet "Whoso List to Hunt" by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, this page contains poems possibly written by Anne Boleyn before her beheading, plus another poem possibly written by Wyatt as he watched her execution from his Tower of London cell. A third poem by Wyatt, "They Flee from Me," is one of the greatest love poems in the English language and may also have been written with Anne Boleyn or other lovers-at-court in mind.

“Whoso List to Hunt” is a famous, very early English sonnet written by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) in the mid-16th century. The poem was first published in a 1557 anthology entitled Songes and Sonettes Written by the Ryght Honorable Lord Henry Howard, late Earle of Surrey, and others. The anthology was published in London by Richard Tottel and is better known today as Tottel's Miscellany. This was the modern English language's first printed poetry anthology, and thus a ground-breaking work of literature. Wyatt's poem, which has an alternate title, “The Lover Despairing to Attain Unto His Lady’s Grace Relinquisheth the Pursuit,” is commonly believed to have been written for Anne Boleyn, who married King Henry VIII only to be beheaded at his command when she failed to produce a male heir. (Ouch, talk about male chauvinism!) Here is my attempt at a modernization of the poem:

Whoever Longs to Hunt
by Sir Thomas Wyatt
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Whoever longs to hunt, I know the deer;
but as for me, alas!, I may no more.
This vain pursuit has left me so bone-sore
I'm one of those who falters, at the rear.
Yet friend, how can I draw my anguished mind
away from the doe?
                               Thus, as she flees before
me, fainting I follow.
                                I must leave off, therefore,
since in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Whoever seeks her out,
                                     I relieve of any doubt,
that he, like me, must spend his time in vain.
For graven with diamonds, set in letters plain,
these words appear, her fair neck ringed about:
Touch me not, for Caesar's I am,
And wild to hold, though I seem tame.

Here is a modern English prose paraphrase, also by Michael R. Burch: "Whoever longs to hunt, I can recommend the deer to pursue. But as for me, I just can't keep up any more. My vain pursuit has left me tired and sore to the bone. Now I'm one of the hunters who lags the furthest behind. But how can I draw my weary mind away from the deer? So as she flees before me, I follow even though I'm fainting and fading fast. But I have to give up, because it's like trying to catch the wind in a net. Still, whoever longs to hunt should have no doubt that he too will spend his time in vain, because engraved in diamonds and written in plain letters around her throat are the king's words: "Touch me not, for I belong to Caesar, and am wild to hold, although I seem tame."

Analysis of theme and plot: The theme is romantic love, using the metaphor of a hunter pursuing a hind (female deer). The plot is fairly simple: The deer is young, fleet and as hard to catch as the wind. The hunter is older, slower, and weary of the chase. He is lagging behind other hunters who are younger and more energetic. And the chase is ultimately futile, because the King has designated the doe as his royal property, going as far as to put a diamond choker around her neck that stakes his claim. It was a capital crime in those days to hunt the royal deer, and indeed Wyatt almost lost his head for pursing his King's lover. The poem has been taken by some to be about a sort of ménage a trios between Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII and Sir Thomas Wyatt (with the latter getting the short end of the shaft, if you'll pardon the pun).

The poem is an anglicized version of the Petrarchan sonnet. It is written in loose iambic pentameter (Wyatt is famous, or infamous, for his metrical irregularities). Wyatt's rhyme scheme was ABBAABBA CDDCEE (see the original poem below the image of Anne Boleyn) with an octet followed by a sestet. There is a volta (a "turn") at the end of the octet. In this particular poem, the "turn" is from the poet considering his problem, to the solution he chooses. "Whoso List to Hunt" is an imitation or paraphrase of Petrarch's Rima 190, which is also about a deer who belongs to Caesar being pursued by a frustrated hunter who is unable to capture her. Please note that Wyatt's poem ends in a rhymed couplet, which would become a hallmark of Shakespeare's sonnets (which would follow Wyatt's by about half a century). The couplet appears to have been one of Wyatt's innovations, as the original Petrarchan model did not close with a couplet.

It is worth noting that at the time "Whoso List to Hunt" was published, the best penners of poetry were writing for themselves and their closest circle of literary friends, not the general public. It was, in fact, a very dangerous time to be an honest, outspoken writer. Several of the poets published in Tottel's Miscellany ended up in prison on charges of heresy and/or treason: Henry Howard, Thomas Wyatt, Nicholas Grimald, John Heywood and Edward Somerset. English writers of note who actually ended up losing their heads include Henry Howard, Sir Thomas More, Chidiock Tichborne and Sir Walter Raleigh. Other writers, artists and celebrities who ended up court, prison, or insane asylums include Joan d'Arc, William Blake, Miguel de Cervantes, John Clare, Daniel Defoe, Thomas Kyd, Richard Lovelace, Sir Thomas Malory, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, Voltaire and Oscar Wilde.

Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder [1503-1542] has been credited, along with Henry Howard, with introducing the Petrarchan sonnet into the English language. His father, Henry Wyatt, had been one of Henry VII's privy Councilors, and he remained a trusted royal adviser when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509. The handsome, strapping Thomas Wyatt followed his father to court and enjoyed a privileged education at St. John's College of the University of Cambridge. He married Elizabeth Brooke, the sister of a baron, and together they had a son, Thomas Wyatt the Younger, who would later lead a rebellion against Queen Mary I, a woman who had so many people killed she was called "Bloody Mary." The rebellion, called "Wyatt's Rebellion," failed and Thomas Wyatt the Younger was executed in 1554 at age 33.

Various facts, conjectures and legends suggest that the elder Wyatt may have fallen in love with the king’s mistress, Anne Boleyn. Their acquaintance is certain; whether or not the two were lovers, and if so, to what extent, remains a matter of speculation. But in his poetry, Wyatt called his mistress Anna, and he sometimes embedded bits of information in poems that seem to correspond with Anne Boleyn's life. For instance, "Whoso List to Hunt" might well have been written about the King’s claim on a woman who had been so avidly pursued by other ardent suitors:

Whoso List to Hunt
by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh 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,
Sithens 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.

Noli me tangere means "Touch me not." According to the Bible, this is what Jesus said to Mary Magdalene when she tried to embrace him after the resurrection.

In ancient times the King of England could have men executed for hunting the king's deer. (Robin Hood was famously pursued by the Sheriff of Nottingham for poaching the king's deer.) If the poet's lover quoted Jesus, telling Wyatt to "Touch me not," this suggests that in addition to the king's directives, there may have been religious reasons for him abandoning her pursuit. It seems possible that when Ann Boleyn married King Henry VIII, she may have declared herself untouchable because her vows were not only to her King, but also to God.

Wyatt enjoyed the king's favor for most of his life. He was part of the delegation to Rome that tried to persuade Pope Clement VII to allow Henry VIII to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Wyatt was knighted in 1535 and was made the high sheriff of Kent in 1536. But in May 1536, Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower of London for allegedly committing adultery with Anne Boleyn. He was released from the Tower later that year, thanks to his and his father's friendship with Thomas Cromwell. But during his stay in the Tower, Wyatt may have witnessed the executions of Anne Boleyn and five men with whom she was accused of committing adultery.

Is it possible that Ann Boleyn saved Thomas Wyatt's life, by insisting that he must not touch her? Perhaps being a gentlemen he regretfully gave up the pursuit, and that might have been his salvation. Of course there is considerable speculation here on my part, but when I read the poem I get the impression that Wyatt decided to give up the chase, and that when he did, he was already lagging far behind some of his competitors.

The two poems below have been attributed to Anne Boleyn, although it is probably impossible to prove that she wrote them ...

Defiled is my name full sore
attributed to Anne Boleyn

Defiled is my name full sore
Through cruel spite and false report,
That I may say for evermore,
Farewell, my joy! Adieu comfort!
For wrongfully ye judge of me
Unto my fame a mortal wound,
Say what ye list, it will not be,
Ye seek for that can not be found.

O Death
attributed to Anne Boleyn

O Death, O Death, rock me asleepe,
Bring me to quiet rest;
Let pass my weary guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Thy sound my death abroad will tell,
For I must die,
There is no remedy.

My pains, my pains, who can express?
Alas, they are so strong!
My dolours will not suffer strength
My life for to prolong.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Thy sound my death abroad will tell,
For I must die,
There is no remedy.

Alone, alone in prison strong
I wail my destiny:
Woe worth this cruel hap that I
Must taste this misery!
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Thy sound my death abroad will tell,
For I must die,
There is no remedy.

Farewell, farewell, my pleasures past!
Welcome, my present pain!
I feel my torment so increase
That life cannot remain.
Cease now, thou passing bell,
Ring out my doleful knoll,
For thou my death dost tell:
Lord, pity thou my soul!
Death doth draw nigh,
Sound dolefully:
For now I die,
I die, I die.

This poem by Thomas Wyatt may have been written as he watched Anne Boleyn's execution from his Tower of London cell window ...

Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei
by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The Bell Tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

Circa Regna tonat means “it thunders around thrones.”

This poem may have been written about Anne Boleyn ...

They Flee from Me
by Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Here is another find love poem by Thomas Wyatt:

Is it Possible

by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Is it possible
That so high debate,
So sharp, so sore, and of such rate,
Should end so soon and was begun so late?
Is it possible?

Is it possible
So cruel intent,
So hasty heat and so soon spent,
From love to hate, and thence for to relent?
Is it possible?

Is it possible
That any may find
Within one heart so diverse mind,
To change or turn as weather and wind?
Is it possible?

Is it possible
To spy it in an eye
That turns as oft as chance on die,
The truth whereof can any try?
Is it possible?

It is possible
For to turn so oft,
To bring that lowest which was most aloft,
And to fall highest yet to light soft:
It is possible.

All is possible
Whoso list believe.
Trust therefore first, and after preve,
As men wed ladies by licence and leave.
All is possible.

Here is yet another superb love poem by Wyatt:

In Aeternum
by Sir Thomas Wyatt

In aeternum I was once determed
For to have loved, and my mind affirmed
That with my heart it should be confirmed
In aeternum.

Forthwith I found the thing that I might like
And sought with love to warm her heart alike,
For as me thought I should not see the like
In aeternum.

To trace this dance I put myself in press.
Vain hope did lead and bade I should not cease
To serve, to suffer, and still to hold my peace
In aeternum.

With this first rule I furthered me apace
That, as methought, my troth had taken place
With full assurance to stand in her grace
In aeternum.

It was not long ere I by proof had found
That feeble building is on feeble ground;
For in her heart this word did never sound:
In aeternum.

In aeternum then from my heart I cast
That I had first determined for the best.
Now in the place another thought doth rest
In aeternum.

In aeternum means "forever."

Wyatt wrote poems in a variety of forms, including sonnets, terza rima, ottava rima, ballads, epigrams, carols, canzones, rondeaus, lute songs, satires and doggerel.

Those were perilous times for poets. Henry Howard [1517-1547], the Earl of Surrey, was the first English poet to publish blank verse, and along with Wyatt he helped introduce the sonnet to the English language. Together Wyatt and Howard are known as the fathers of the English sonnet. But Henry VIII had Howard, who was a cousin of Anne Boleyn, beheaded for treason.

One of the greatest epitaphs in the English language was written by Sir Walter Raleigh while he awaited execution in the Tower of London:

by Sir Walter Raleigh

Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust,
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days,
And from which earth, and grave, and dust
The Lord will raise me up, I trust.

Some of the famous writers of note and other celebrities who spent time in the Tower of London include:

Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder was one of the best and most influential poets of his era
James I of Scotland was an accomplished poet
Charles, Duke of Orleans, was a French poet who wrote superior poems in English while being held hostage
Sir Thomas More was an accomplished poet and the author of Utopia
Anne Boleyn may have written the two poems above
Elizabeth I wrote poems before and after she became Queen of England
Sir Walter Ralegh wrote his great poem "The Lie" about his imprisonment on false charges, which eventually cost him his head
Chidiock Tichborne wrote his famous elegy to himself while awaiting execution in the Tower
William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, was imprisoned for writing controversial religious pamphlets
Sir William D'Avenant was an English poet laureate and playwright

To a Mistress Dying
by Sir William D'Avenant

Lover: Your beauty, ripe and calm and fresh
   As eastern summers are,
Must now, forsaking time and flesh,
   Add light to some small star.

Philosopher: Whilst she yet lives, were stars decay'd,
   Their light by hers relief might find;
But Death will lead her to a shade
   Where Love is cold and Beauty blind.

Lover: Lovers, whose priests all poets are,
   Think every mistress, when she dies,
Is changed at least into a star:
   And who dares doubt the poets wise?

Philosopher: But ask not bodies doom'd to die
   To what abode they go;
Since Knowledge is but Sorrow's spy,
   It is not safe to know.

Weep No More For What Is Past
by Sir William D'Avenant

Weep no more for what is past,
For time in motion makes such haste
He hath no leisure to descry
Those errors which he passeth by.
If we consider accident,
And how repugnant unto sense
It pays desert with bad event,
We shall disparage Providence.

Thomas More's Epitaph
by Sir Thomas More
translated from the original Latin by Archdeacon Wrangham

Within this tomb Jane, wife of More, reclines;
This More for Alice and himself designs.
The first, dear object of my youthful vow,
Gave me three daughters and a son to know;
The next—ah! virtue in a stepdame rare!—
Nursed my sweet infants with a mother's care.
With both my years so happily have past,
Which most my love, I know not—first or last.
Oh! had religion destiny allowed,
How smoothly mixed had our three fortunes flowed!
But, be we in the tomb, in heaven allied,
So kinder death shall grant what life denied.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch: "Wulf and Eadwacer" may be the oldest extant poem in the English language written by a female poet. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a modern translation of a truly great poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar. "How Long the Night" is one of the very best Anglo Saxon lyric poems. "Caedmon's Hymn" may be the oldest poem in the English language.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The Best Poetry Translations of Michael R. Burch
The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
Adam Lay Ybounden
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Charles d'Orleans
This World's Joy
Tegner's Drapa
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You"
Whoso List to Hunt
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Vera Pavlova
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

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