The English Renaissance is a term that describes the cultural movement that took place in England in the period from the end of the 15th to the beginning of the 17th centuries. The blossom of culture, literature, and the arts was at its height during the so-called Elizabethan era which covered the second half of the 16th century. While England had already developed its literary culture to some extent by the time the Renaissance movement reached its peak, the creative work of a few Renaissance poets introduced entirely new forms into the English tradition of lyrics. Sir Henry Wyatt and Sir Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey were the first to introduce the new form of a sonnet into the literature, whose distinctive feature was a final couplet that rhymed (Jokinen, 2010).
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In the English Renaissance, writing of lyric poems was one of the activities of social life. It was generally associated with various practices common in educated circles. Poems were either read aloud to live audiences or passed in manuscript form before the printing press came into use around the middle of the 16th century. Arthur Marotti writes that lyrics were composed on a variety of circumstances during the English Renaissance, which included imprisonment, correspondence, New Year’s gift-giving, patronage requests, paying compliments, or courtly love with description of agonies of a love-sick knight inflicted on him by a cruel and hard-hearted mistress (Marotti 1995: 3; Griffith 1991: 33). Given the fact that Henry Wyatt (1503-1542) was an ambassador at the Tudor court and that he was subject to imprisonment for some time, it is no wonder that his lyrics reflected the thematic trends popular in his time. At the same time, while his poems were written on a number of topics typical for that period, his innovative feature was using the form of a sonnet to write in English, the form that he borrowed from the Italian literature and Petrarch’s sonnets in particular.
The outstanding contribution of Sir Henry Wyatt lies not in the mere fact of applying the Italian sonnet to the English poetic culture, but in modifying the Italian sonnet so that a totally unique form of a sonnet was produced. Indeed, in his attempt to imitate Petrarch through translating his sonnets and using their subject matter, Sir Henry Wyatt developed a distinctly English structure of a sonnet, which differed from the one used by Petrarch. Specifically, Petrarch’s scheme employed a 14 lines pattern, where the rhyming of an octave (8 lines) went abba abba, and the rhyming of a sestet varied. Sir Henry Wyatt borrowed the octave pattern from Petrarch, but departed from his sestet scheme. Unlike Petrarch, whose sonnets did not end in a couplet that rhymed, Wyatt’s closing couplet rhymed. As a matter of fact, his most often used sestet pattern was cddc ee. Therefore, by writing sonnets that had fourteen lines and were divided into sections of 8 and 6 lines (in other words, octaves and sestets), Wyatt became the father of the English sonnet, and even the father of English poetry (Thompson 1974: 9).
Wyatt’s contribution to the English Renaissance was also great due to his ability to bring the achievements of the Italian Renaissance to his home literature. Having served as an ambassador in Italy, he, by the words of George Puttenham, “injected foreign class into the rude and homely manner of vulgar [English] Poesie” (Falconer 2008: 183). At the same time, he managed to retain his “Englishness” and fix a distinctive form of the sonnet in the English poetry. Moreover, Wyatt managed to preserve traditionally English vocabulary, which he often borrowed from Chaucer. To specify, in his poem “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”, Wyatt uses the word newfangleness, which means ‘fickle’.
In conclusion, Sir Henry Wyatt introduced the form of a sonnet into the English poetry and refined it in a peculiar way so that it had a rhyming couplet, he was a pioneer of the Renaissance poetry at the Tudor court and his legacy provided the basis for Shakespearean sonnets almost a hundred years later. Besides, Wyatt fixed the convention which portrayed the mistress as hard-hearted and the knight as love-sick in the English love poetry. Finally, he preserved the traditional language and used the legacy of the earlier poets, e.g. Chaucer, in his lyrics.
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