Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

The first modern English poem


This poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt, written a few years before his death in 1542, is the first poem in The Penguin Book of English Verse (pub.1956). It comes much later in The New Penguin Book of English Verse (pub. 2001) which begins with the anonymous Ich am of Irlande, written sometime in the first half of the fourteenth century. The editor of the earlier anthology, John Hayward, takes as his starting point ‘the publication in 1557 of Tottel’s Songs and Sonettes’ which he describes as ‘the first anthology of recognizably modern English verse’.

When I first read Wyatt’s poem, as a fifteen year old boy with a growing but as yet disorganised interest in literature, it was its modernity that struck me most forcibly. It remains for me the first modern English poem.

They flee from me, that somtime did me seke

The first thing to strike you is the tone of voice. What you hear is a man sharing his thoughts with you, sometimes matter of fact, sometimes emotional. It is the voice that Shakespeare gave to Orsino in Twelfth Night. Wyatt’s sonnet is a soliloquy, an interior monologue, changing in tone and mood almost line by line.

The next thing you notice is the tension between the formal constraints of the verse and the informal progress of the man’s thoughts. This becomes even more apparent as the sentence continues in the next line.

With naked fote stalkyng within my chamber.

The iambic pentameter, with its regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, works in counterpoint to the rhythm of speech. In the first line, three words only are stressed: flee, sometime, seek. Of these, the first and the third carry most weight, balanced carefully against each other.

The second line, continuing without a break from the first, provides further disruption to the metrical pattern with four stresses: naked, foot, stalking, chamber. The first three work as a group, three stresses in one. The first and third words hark back alliteratively to the last word of the first line, drawing the two lines even closer together through the repetition of the hard consonant common to each: seek, naked, stalking.

As we read on, the sound world of the poem gradually develops and changes, relying on alliteration and assonance, but also on rhyme. Rhyme, though, is often underplayed, as we find in the next few lines.

Once have I seen them gentle, tame and meke,
That now are wild, and do not once remember
That sometyme they have put them selves in danger
To take bread at my hand, and now they range,
Busily sekyng in continual change.

The first rhyme (seek, meek) disappears in a flash as the sense carries us forward to the next line and the next and the next without a pause until halfway through line six. The half-rhyme (remember, in danger) serves only to give the accelerating rhythm another push.

The tension between metre and rhythm is maintained, creating a dramatic dynamism that is one of the poem’s characteristic features. Three stresses in the third line (gentle, tame, meek), two in the next (wild, remember), only one in the fifth (danger), three in the sixth (bread, hand, range), four in the seventh (busily, seeking, continual, change), four heavy stresses that bring the poem to a standstill and presage a sudden change of mood.

Thanked be fortune, it hath bene otherwise
Twenty times better:

Here again is a man talking to us in the language of ordinary speech. Everyday expressions used almost carelessly, light heartedly. A line and a half of verse that reads more like prose than poetry, the strict form of the iambic pentameter completely ignored. Then, as in the first of the poem’s three seven-line verses, the poet uses all his verbal artistry to put us in his place.

                                  but once especiall,
In thinne array, after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gowne did from her shoulders fall,
And she me caught in her armes long and small,
And therwithall so swetely did me kysse,
And softly sayd: deare hart, how like you this?

Rhythm, pace, pattern, sound, all play their part. Now assonance takes over from alliteration. The interplay of half-rhymes and internal rhymes is like a consort of viols in something by Dowland. Especial, shoulders fall, small, therewithal. Guise, loose, arms, kiss, this. Almost all the vowel sounds are long, often following each other in procession. The last three lines, each starting with ‘and’, imitate the sequence of actions they describe. The poet re-lives them and has us hanging on his every word. The vivid, breathless eroticism of the remembered seduction ends with the immediacy of direct speech. We hear the beloved’s actual words. She was ‘they’ to begin with, now she is ‘she’. Shakespeare gave this voice to Enobarbus to describe Cleopatra.

The first line of the last verse has the same shape as those of the first two: a ten syllable line divided into two groups of four and six.

It was no dreame: for I lay broade awakyng.

But the mood of each of these otherwise similar lines is distinct from the other. Our man now anticipates his reader’s incredulity. It really happened, he says. Believe me.

But all is turnde now through my gentlenesse,
Into a bitter fashion of forsakyng.

The tone becomes one of recrimination, degenerating in the next two lines into sarcasm.

And I have leave to go of her goodnesse,
And she also to use newfanglenesse.

The rhythm has changed too. The lines now are short and self-contained, in contrast with the long sentences running over several lines that characterise the first two verses. The rhymes make no attempt to hide themselves, serving not as a transition to the next line, but as an ending to their own. Awaking, forsaking. Gentleness, goodness, newfangleness.

But when it comes to the final couplet, in which the poet speaks as directly to us as did his beloved to him at the end of the previous verse, something much more subtle is going on. He has put his case and now he asks us to make the judgement.

But sins that I unkyndly so am served:
How like you this, what hath she now deserved?

This is the voice Shakespeare gave to Iago. Or perhaps to Malvolio when he had him say, ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!’

The last poem in The Penguin Book of English verse is Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill. Another soliloquy, its use of language sensuous like Wyatt’s, with a change of mood from verse to verse and an ending that is, like his, an admission of defeat, of impotence in the face of change and time.

It seems remarkable that, with four hundred years between them, the first modern English poem should have been as perfect as the last and, in all essentials, the same. But then it was the young men of the sixteenth century, Wyatt, Marlowe, Sidney, Shakespeare, who invented modern English. We still write and speak in the language they created.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Sir Thomas Wyatt

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This entry was posted on July 24, 2013 by in Literature and tagged , , , .
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