The Hunter and the Hunted: Wyatt and Agency
By Bethany Klassen
Working within the thematic and structural framework of a Petrarchan sonnet, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso lists to hunt” adopts a conventional motif of this genre to transform the speaker’s pursuit of his beloved into the story of a hunter chasing after an ever elusive deer. Following this tradition, its primary focus does not address the object of this hunt but rather seeks to convey the lover’s subjective experience of pursuing her and his struggle to integrate this effort’s inevitable disappointment into his concept of self, a process which ultimately becomes a pivotal part in the formation of his identity. While the speaker fashions himself after the narcissistic conventions of the Petrarchan lover in that he asserts his dominant role in the sonnet and his empowerment through superlative failure, he manipulates this adopted identity by placing his love within a political framework. The imposition of this foreign element on the poem’s conventional literary form allows him to explore the ways in which his relationship to power both submerges his personal voice and allows for further empowerment through the subversion of authority.
Throughout the first ten lines of the sonnet, the speaker’s obsessions with distinguishing himself from the rest of the hunters and continual self-referencing indicates his belief in the uniqueness and prominence of his role in this drama, a belief that mirrors the conventional narcissistic identity prescribed by Petrarchan convention. His evident need to establish his distinct position begins to appear as he tells his audience, “I am of them that farthest cometh behind” (4). The similarity of the end sounds of farthest and cometh link the two words together and emphasize the superlative nature of his failure. Almost simultaneously, the juxtaposition of the verb “cometh” with the preposition “behind” delays the moment of revelation and deliberately misleads the reader into assuming that the speaker has almost succeeded, thereby emphasizing the irony of his boast. Thus, while the first word coupling renders his failure subordinate to the fact he stands out from the pack of pursuers, the second pair exhibits the speaker’s ability to transform any distinction into a source of empowerment. In the next two lines he further underscores his obsession with self: “Yet may I, by no means, my wearied mind / Draw from the deer” (5-6). Reading through this section, the phrase “by no means” acts to break up the flow of the line, thereby emphasizing the words “I” and “my” surrounding it, words which he also connects through their similar sounds. In addition to this emphasis, the fact that the image of the deer doesn’t appear until after the line break acts to draw the reader’s attention away from the deer’s control over the speaker’s mind to his utter lack of power. Ironically, in doing so he controls his readers’ thoughts to insure the centrality of his role within the sonnet. The strict adherence of these lines to a preexisting literary tradition implies that while the speaker gains empowerment through this identity, he is nevertheless reliant upon and outside authority for the formation of his self-concept.
Even within these first lines, however, the resignation and abandonment of ideals expressed by the speaker point to ways in which he manipulates and opposes this identity as well as adopts it. From almost the first line of the poem, the speaker undermines his own portrayal of himself as a conventional unrequited lover when he informs his audience, “But as for me, alas, I may no more” (2). Paradoxically, in asserting his differentiation from the other hunters, the speaker both asserts a Petrarchan lover’s traditional narcissism while emphasizing the fact that he does not see himself as following the ideals of that system, ideals which value the unconditional devotion he has just renounced. This same conflict with conventional ideals appears later in the poem when the speaker says, “I leave off, therefore, / Since in a net I seek to hold the wind” (7-8). On one level, this image reinforces the speaker’s sense of his hunt’s futility and as a result also confirms the empowerment gained through his acceptance of this fact. However, this proves problematic not only because he again declares his intention to give up the hunt but also because he chooses to characterize his beloved as wind—a thing lacking tangible substance and worth. The same conviction in his own self-importance that leads him to fixate on his hunt of the deer also leads him to devalue the very thing he pursues. In the speaker’s selective adoption and rejection of specific elements belonging to the Petrarchan identity, he displays a belief in his right to fashion a self that exists outside of the ideals and expectations of his culture. The speaker may be a conventionally narcissistic hunter of an elusive hind, but he insists on being so on his own terms.
Although the speaker provides the audience these glimpses into his sense of self both in relation and opposition to poetic conventions, in the final quatrain he explores he ways in which this identity functions within the broader context of the surrounding political and economic climate of his time by introducing another character in the hunt—the hind’s master. In these four lines, the speaker tells his audience, “And graven with diamonds in letters plan / 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’” (11-14). Here, in contrast to the speaker’s prolific use of the personal pronoun “I” in the first ten lines, it only appears within the words Caesar has placed into the silent mouth of the hind. In the presence of this new symbol of political power, Caesar, the speaker has lost the ability to give voice to his narcissistic identity because this more powerful force cannot only control the attention of the audience but also manipulate the means and content of others’ self-expression. The speaker further emphasizes the subjection of personal identity this political figure brings by ending the two final lines of the sonnet with the off-rhyme of “am” and “tame.” In doing so, he breaks out of the traditional structure of a Petrarchan sonnet, and separates them from the rest of the poem, drawing the reader’s attention to them even as Caesar’s words command the attention of his subjects. In addition to the political and military connotations associated with the figure of Caesar, the fact that he writes this message “graven with diamonds in letters plain” indicates an economic domination as well—a display of wealth that literally collars the beloved and marks her as property of this other man. Not only does this outsider usurp the speaker’s principal role in the poem, he does the impossible and captures the very wind that the disheartened hunter never can. Because the speaker can no longer express his narcissism through continual self-referencing once he enters this power structure, he must find alternative ways to subvert this power and reassert his control over the sonnet and his own role in it.
Paradoxically, the final quatrain that expresses the submersion of his identity simultaneously grants the speaker power to subvert this authority by manipulating the reader’s interpretation of the rest of the poem. Looking back over the first ten lines, this new perspective transforms the implications of the very first line when the speaker says, “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind” (1). The mention of hunting in the first phrase of this line leads one to automatically assume that “hind” refers to the deer he is hunting, but a second, more obscure meaning of the word “hind” suggests a servant cultivating the land of its master (n. 2a). In the context of Caesar’s presence at the end of the poem, the speaker’s portrayal of his beloved becomes tainted by the implications that while she holds control over his thoughts, she herself is subject to this higher authority. By suggestion the beloved’s servile state, the speaker opposes yet another Petrarchan convention that dictates that the lover idealizes and even idolizes the object of his affection. Placed within the context of the final quatrain, one can see from the very start of the poem ways in which the speaker undermines the framework of his poem and therefore also undermines the identity he assumes in writing within this tradition. The speaker’s skill lies not solely in his ability to reveal his true self to his readers but also his ability to simultaneously conceal it. Likewise, the presence of the collar in the last four lines radically reinterprets the line that reads: “Since in the net I seek to hold the wind” (8). Whereas this line initially seems to indicate that the hunt’s futility springs from the inherently unobtainable nature of the deer, the deer’s evident capture by Caesar emphasizes the speaker’s weakness in comparison to this dominant figure. This affirmation of his weakness serves to amplify the empowerment he receives through the collar’s message: “Caesar’s I am, / And wild for to hold though I seem tame” (13-14). Because the symbol of the beloved’s bondage ironically protects her freedom, the speaker can attribute the failure of his hunt to this external power and therefore counteracts any suspicion that it springs from his own impotency. While the reinterpretation of the hind’s role as a symbol of political subjection manipulates the reader’s understanding of the beloved, more importantly it subtly becomes a means through which the speaker expresses the suppression of his agency and thereby affirms the empowerment gained through this suppression. The seemingly almighty Caesar becomes yet another tool the speaker uses to transform his weakness into strength and refashion his narcissism as victimization.
As the speaker grapples to define his identity within the context of both the literary and political climates of his day, there emerges a voice simultaneously filled with bitterness towards the authority that has robbed him of his potency and empowered by its ability to transform this oppression into a vehicle for expressing his submerged narcissistic self-concept. Given the skill and subtlety of the sonnet’s construction, one cannot help but consider the ways in which the entire poem might also function as a means of empowerment and subversion for the poet. Even while Caesar uses his power to submerge the speaker’s voice, the audience receives this information through the poet’s ability to manipulate the reader’s perception of this power through language. Such a viewpoint becomes especially intriguing and pertinent in light of Wyatt’s own environment, an environment in which one can find glimmers of the speaker’s struggle to come to terms with absolute authority. While the speaker looks on the bondage of his beloved, the poet witnessed this dangerous game of power and love played out between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. While one can never know Wyatt’s intention in writing “Whoso list to hunt,” it remains an intriguing possibility that the poet himself might like his speaker have appreciated the power of language to undermine and protest authority and whether this poem might not function as the expression of a self otherwise silenced by the hostile political system in which he moved.
Wyatt, Sir Thomas. “Whoso list to hunt.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1. 7th ed. Eds. M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton & Company: New Your, 2000. 537.
© Bethany Klassen