Sir Thomas Wyatt – My Lute, Awake!

This song of a complaining suitor is interesting for its explicit threat of violence and insistent ferocity towards its subject. The speaker sees his ‘lute’ as the tool of wooing, which having failed will now be replaced with the ‘bow’. However, beneath this show of aggression are many of the typical themes of Renaissance love poetry – the suitor’s dependence on the woman and their inability to ‘put down the lute’, – to escape the influence of the beloved.

Striking imagery at the start of the poem captures the woman’s beauty but also the aggressive instinct of the suitor. The woman is ‘marble stone’ – flawless, elegant and statuesque but also cold and inhuman. The purity of ‘marble’ contrasts with the rawness of ‘lead’ to suggest that the suitor may be of a lower social status than his beloved. The second image also sees the woman as ‘rock’, here in the cliff battered by waves. The impression is of loftiness or haughtiness in the woman, and again the scene has affecting beauty to it. Both of these images thinly mask a violent impulse in the speaker, who wants to ‘grave’ (carve) the marble, lamenting that his song cannot ‘pierce her heart’. The image of the cliff face is interesting because implicit is the recognition that waves do gradually undermine the rock and collapse it – this is the first indication in the poem that much of the speaker’s sentiments are rhetorical posturing, underpinned by some kind of continued hope of success.

The poem is an overt threat to the lover of violent retribution for her coldness. If the courting process is imagined as a hunt, then the speaker invokes an ironic justice that replaces the ‘lute’ of the metaphorical chase with the ‘bow’ of the literal. It must be noted the extent to which this is a break with traditional Petrarchan decorum, the poet is saying ‘If you don’t love me I will hunt you down…’. TA pun is made on the word ‘game’, reflecting the woman’s lighthearted approach to her suitors but also suggesting her new role as quarry. See how the half internal rhyme with ‘pain’ overpowers the stanza with the harsh ‘ain’ sound, implying the agony of the hunt’s victim.

Despite these threats, it is the following two stanzas that presents the bitterest, most affecting attack on the lovers. This may be because in imagining her old, the suitor betrays a lack of belief in his threats to murder her. The image is almost the reverse of the traditional carpe diem sentiment – the speaker clearly takes pleasure in imagining the fate befall his lover – the same isolation and sadness that he feels. The effects of sound in ‘plaining in vain unto the moon’ are particularly evocative, suggesting a howl or scream and perhaps implicitly lunacy. Wyatt anticipates later renaissance poets in his interest in the shallowness and temporality of beauty , ‘thou know beauty but lent’. The speaker imagines the thrill of rebuffing the desperate beloved once her earthly attributes have faded.

However, we must of course doubt that genuine feeling is expressed in these sentiments. The poem plays on the difference between words spoken and reality by having the speaker continually ‘I have done’ in the refrain of each stanza. The frequency of this return becomes almost exasperating, we begin to feel for the beloved, pitted against this sustained declamation. It’s as if the speaker is so angry that he can never quite leave it alone – each stanza’s opening could start with And another thing…’. Yet beneath this hyperbolic anger is the recognition – and here the poem fits itself back comfortably with the conventions of the genre – that the suitor isn’t going to be able to give up on his beloved. The implicit hope in the image of the cliff face inspires the symmetry of first and last stanza – affirming that this is unlikely to be the ‘last Labour’ of the suitor attempting to woo his beloved.

This poem is a powerful display of amorous rhetoric that suggests an aggressive attitude towards the lover and threatens her with the consequences of rejection. The poet allows us to see through this rhetoric, however, to see the much more classically minded speaker who is resigned to pursuing his lover in the ‘hunt’ of courtship for as long as is necessary.