O.K., the title might seem a bit of a stretch, but if you stop and think about what life must have been like in Henry VIII’s England, fascist isn’t inappropriate. Loyalty to the nation meant unquestioning loyalty to the crown. This was a “Christian” state in which the meaning of Christian changed regularly and was determined by the crown. Dissent was a capital offense.
This is the setting for Nicola Shulman’s highly engaging Graven with Diamonds, The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Poet, Lover, Statesman, and Spy in the Court of Henry VIII. Wyatt’s poetry was wildly popular during his life, but has been looked on less favorably ever since. It’s sort of an obscure, but obligatory stop along the road that runs from Chaucer to Shakespeare.
What Shulmam does is to look at the politics of Wyatt’s time in order to understand the popularity of his poetry and to shine light on some of the less well-known aspects of his life. Anyone who reads much Tudor history will recognize Wyatt’s name because he was one of the men confined to the Tower at the time of Anne Boleyn’s fall—and the only one of that group to make it out alive. What fewer people know is that Wyatt went on to a career as a diplomat and, despite repeated political intrigues against him, managed that rarity (yes, yes, I’m exaggerating) for a courtier in Tudor England: a natural death.
What’s brilliant about Shulman’s book—and it is a brilliant book—is the way Shulman combines genres in order to think about Wyatt, his times, and his work in genuinely new ways. This isn’t just an individual biography, isn’t just portrait of an era, isn’t just a critical study of a minor poet. It’s all of these and something more.
In Henry VIII’s fascist England (and fascist is my term, not Shulman’s) the game of courtly love was played for deadly stakes. As Shulman puts it, Wyatt “like Mandelstam or Akhmatova, was a poet writing under tyranny.” To be a success at court, one needed to master courtly love, while at the same time never engaging in behavior that might come back to be used against one. Anne Boleyn and the men she flirted with, but most likely did not have sex with, learned this lesson the hard way. What was an enjoyable intellectual and emotional play-acting could become deadly real as the mood of the King, and therefore the mood of the time and law, shifted.
This situation—the need for language that was vividly emotional, but topically ambiguous—was ideal for a poet like Wyatt. As Shulman shows us repeatedly, not only could any one of his poems serve as a window into more than one event in his life, his poems could also serve as windows into the lives of others and were used in this way. Wyatt’s poems were copied out by hand, passed among courtiers, used as occasional pieces, with minor modifications as needed. That interpretive plasticity is what made Wyatt so popular. Whatever a courtier was feeling, there was a Wyatt poem that covered it.
One of Shulman’s central claims is that Henry’s court was so dangerous because Henry himself took love so seriously. Others played at courtly gestures; Henry lived them. This meant that when one of his wives fell from grace, all those around her were at risk as well because they all had, as courtiers did at the time, engaged in badinage that suddenly could be taken literally.
For those inclined to explore the sort of musings Shulman offers, this book is a delight throughout. It enables one to imagine life under Henry in a way that standard histories do not. If you currently think of Wyatt as an unimportant figure or his poetry as inconsequential, you’ll have reconsidered that thinking by the end of the book.
This book is a delight not just because of its intelligence, but also because of Shulman’s knack for finding slightly whimsical, but perfectly apt, ways of describing people and situations. Catherine of Aragon had “a little pointed chin like a lemon.” She characterizes the continental linguists of the era as perceiving “English in its current state… [as] a shaggy and hopalong means of expression.” At one point, in a comparison I find more entertaining than accurate, Shulman depicts Henry as “sincere in all his doings. If he were alive today, he’d be Canadian.” In other words, reading this book isn’t just interesting, it’s fun.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will acknowledge that I received an electronic review copy of this book, but I don’t think that influenced my evaluation of it.