Oct 3, 2007

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 3

“To His lute”

or “My Lute Awake”

or “The Lover Complaineth the Unkindness of His Love” [as titled in Tottel’s Miscellany]

by Thomas Wyatt

My lute awake! perform the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And end that I have now begun;
For when this song is sung and past,
My lute be still, for I have done.

As to be heard where ear is none,
As lead to grave in marble stone,
My song may pierce her heart as soon;
Should we then sigh or sing or moan?
No, no, my lute, for I have done.

The rocks do not so cruelly
Repulse the waves continually,
My suit and affection;
So that I am past remedy,
Whereby my lute and I have done.

Proud of the spoil that thou hast got
Of simple hearts thorough Love's shot,
By whom, unkind, thou hast them won,
Think not he hath his bow forgot,
Although my lute and I have done.

Vengeance shall fall on thy disdain
That makest but game on earnest pain.
Think not alone under the sun
Unquit to cause thy lovers plain,
Although my lute and I have done.

Perchance thee lie wethered and old
The winter nights that are so cold,
Plaining in vain unto the moon;
Thy wishes then dare not be told;
Care then who list, for I have done.

And then may chance thee to repent
The time that thou hast lost and spent
To cause thy lovers sigh and swoon;
Then shalt thou know beauty but lent,
And wish and want as I have done.

Now cease, my lute; this is the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And ended is that we begun.
Now is this song both sung and past:
My lute be still, for I have done.


line 2: labour: work, and petition.
7: lead to grave: lead to engrave (lead is not hard enough to cut marble).
17: thorough: through Love's shot: Cupid's arrow.
19: his bow forgot: Cupid's bow, still a danger for the lady.
22: makest but game on: only makes fun of.
24: Unquit: unrequited, not subjected to pain. plain: to complain.
26: wethered: withered (possibly weathered).
28: plaining: complaining.
30: who list: who likes.


Winters mentioned this poem a couple times in his essays, but he never discussed it, briefly or at length, or made a case for its inclusion in the Winters Canon. Further, no Wintersian that I know of has ever considered whether the inclusion of this poem in Quest for Reality is justified (setting aside the issue of what he or she considers the purpose of Quest). I have seldom found the poem mentioned in essays and books on Winters’s career. Further, no Wintersian critic has ever discussed or more than mentioned Thomas Wyatt’s poetry in general. (I will have to give a little more thought to what these facts say about Wyatt’s poetry and Winters’s views of it. If Winters’s goal was to get the poems of Quest read and studied more often as exemplary models, it doesn’t seem that he has achieved that goal to any degree concerning Thomas Wyatt’s poetry.)

The comments Winters made about “To His Lute,” judging in accordance with the main course of his literary career, suggest that he did not quite consider this poem one of the great poems, though he did regard it as an exceptionally good one -- hence the star-rating I give it. I surmise from various indications that Winters thought that the WAY Wyatt wrote this poem is so salutary that it deserved a spot in Quest for Reality, though the content of the poem is conventional -- indeed, almost ordinary. But this is only my informed guess. I can’t appeal to other views, since no Wintersian I know of has ever bothered to scrutinize the poem in detail -- or even to mention it.

The occasion of the poem, the back-story we might say, is indefinite, since we cannot discern exactly the moral relationship between the speaker of the poem, a courtly suitor it would seem, and the woman who has rejected his suit or been unfaithful to him in some way. It’s not clear what the speaker wanted of the woman he is addressing, a sexual relationship, marriage, or something else. (By the way, take note of the funny cartoon on unrequited love.) The poem’s speaker, whether Wyatt himself or not, condemns this unfaithful woman and wishes for justice (“poetic” justice, it seems) to be served on the one who has wrongly spurned or been unfaithful to him.

Yet setting this puzzling and troublesome matter aside, which weakens the poem in my judgment, what Wyatt gives us in this work is a study of moral consequentialism, which is the overt subject matter of the poem, what Winters and others of his time called the paraphraseable content. The poet’s judgment of this subject matter is found in the manner in which the “back-story” is treated. Wyatt’s style and structure, Winters probably believed, make this poem deserving of the Winters Canon. What is particularly admirable in Wyatt’s manner is that he reasons his way through the experience at hand and carefully controls his emotional response to the understanding that he reaches. The speaker almost sublimates his emotions by addressing his lute (one of the Petrarchan conventions according to which that the poem was composed) and shows that he is taking a reasoned moral stance toward the subject matter. His judgment is clear: people should reap what they sow. Those who are faithless should reap the consequences of faithlessness. Those who unjustly spurn should, by a just turn, feel the loneliness of being spurned. With his abstract, controlled language, Wyatt generalizes the principle, calling implicitly for us all to suffer the consequences of our wrongful actions, to know the sufferings of blindness if we have taken an eye, to feel the pain of loss if we have toyed with a lover or violated the ethics of love-making, and so on.

For these reasons, the poem provides a nice example of the approach Winters believed to be most valuable in the study of literary artworks, for the poem’s style and structure speak to the crucial ideas it conveys to us. This is how Gerald Graff, critic, educator, and one-time Winters student, describes this way of understanding poems in his reminiscence essay, “Yvor Winters at Stanford” (from Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers, 1981):

To [Winters] every literary work necessarily advances or presupposes some “rational understanding,” plausible or not, of its subject, and this understanding “motivates” the emotions and valuations that the work communicates through style and technique. Thus such devices as poetic meter, rhythm, and syntax are more than mere technical apparatus; they are a kind of spiritual grammar which, like a person’s characteristic gestures and facial expressions, reflects his whole disposition toward the world. It followed from this that literary form is “moral,” in Winters’s sense -- a judgment as to how the world is to be understood and dealt with.

Graff’s is an incisive description of Winters’s basic literary tenet. Winters, it would seem, saw in Wyatt’s approach to the surface subject matter of this poem a deeper subject, the taking of a rational stance toward the moral implications of courtly love. Winters, I believe, found this approach highly salutary and worth setting as a model, both literary and moral.

Nonetheless, there are a number of thorny issues that arise as we ponder this poem. First is the matter of context. How does or should our understanding of the poem’s vision of morality change in the knowledge that it was written as the private compositional exercise of a courtier from a distant time? Second is the matter of convention. How can we fully tap into the meaning of a poem that follows specific, narrow conventions in an aristocratic culture in a distant time and place, in this case the specific conventions of the Petrarchan complaint in the English Renaissance? I do not wish to delve into either of these important matters, but they await fuller exploration. Setting aside such intricate questions as these and assuming that Thomas Wyatt was trying to make a general, indeed timeless, statement about morality rather than about the specific experiences of courtship and love, I believe that Yvor Winters believed that Wyatt was making a statement that men and women should -- and need to -- reap what they sow. In the abstract, the woman addressed in the poem is a representative of us all. Her unspecified deeds stand as a synecdoche for human faithlessness. The specific justice Wyatt’s speaker seeks is a call for each of us to suffer the consequences of our wrongful deeds.

On a side matter, it’s interesting to note and reflect upon the fact that Wyatt’s plain style has had very few imitators, a matter which I might come back to at the end of my consideration of the Thomas Wyatt poems chosen for Quest for Reality. Have anyone worked, as it were, out or up from Wyatt, to build upon Wyatt or put Wyatt’s approach to new uses? If not, what is the Winters Canon for to those who say that Winters considered it a set of models for poetic composition?


I agree with Winters, as I understand him. The poem exhibits an almost perfect classical style. The treatment of the subject matter is very generalized, which makes it difficult to sort out the justness of the suitor's complaint against his lover. Wyatt wrote so often about unfaithfulness that his poems on the topic seem a touch puerile. But there is enduring value in exploring the principles of moral consequentialism, such profound and important subject matter, through this story of a spurned lover. Still, I would remind you that, though it is facile, it is also utterly true that there are two sides to every lovers’ quarrel (and sometimes more sides than two), and I can only wonder what the woman might have had to say about the behavior of the speaker of this poem or in answer to his charges against her. (We might suspect, too, knowing what we do about the libidinous Thomas Wyatt, whether his desire for this woman was anything more than boundless sexual appetite.) Still, the rational treatment of this subject does not directly concern itself with what might have been, as it seems, a childish spat between two lovers.

Yet was it childish? No one can be sure, and this also weakens the poem slightly. We do not learn anything definite about the wrongs about which the poem was written to be able to judge the specific case of the woman in the poem and thus to properly or more fully judge the general principle: whether, if she were unfaithful in the way the speaker hints that she was, she is deserving of the “curse” that the speaker calls down upon her. Though we might agree to the general moral principle that the poem commends to us, that of reaping what is sown, the poem does not give as much insight into that principle as it could have because it does not inform us about this specific case, which would help us see better how vital the general principle is.

And if we interpret the poem in the light of Thomas Wyatt’s randy life, the speaker’s understanding of the subject matter seems almost juvenile to me, little more than another case of a spurned suitor behaving childishly, wishing the worst on a woman who has rejected him or who he thinks has been unfaithful to him. Without knowing just a few more details, we have no adequate means to judge the moral rightness of his claims against her. Also, this poem might provide another instance of a weakness in Wyatt’s poems that Winters briefly alluded to in one essay: that it is not morally just to expect a woman to accept a man’s suit just because he made one, a topic that we shall return to concerning a poem to come.

Nonetheless, the poem certainly has high conceptual value. It offers a sustained argument about a morally significant human experience. I think this poem belongs in the Winters Canon as one of the great poems of the English language. I consider it a model of poetic craft and moral statement.


Despite its excellence, I can’t say that I have ever gotten anything of great importance to life out of this poem. The poem hasn’t greatly changed my understanding of morality or justice or significantly enriched my emotional response to the concept of a moral code. I have known the poem well for a long time, but it has not given me a significantly deeper understanding of morality either through its content or its style.

Rather, knowing something about Wyatt and his many poems on unrequited love and unfaithful lovers, I have often thought it possible that he had a mental sickness, which he failed to address or even to recognize, considering his circumstances. Inadvertently, this poem might reveal how human beings become stuck in their illusions. Wyatt’s writings of this sort might be expressions of some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder or sexual addiction -- or perhaps even an unrecognized lust for power and control (perhaps in more areas of life than sexuality). The poem also might reveal unintended ideas about the moral perils of excessive wealth, since it is probably true that he would not have been able to form or indulge his obsession with the sexual mastery of women had he not had wealth and power.

But all these matters are tangential to the poem’s explicit purpose. I do not believe that Wyatt intended to explore any of these matters when he wrote this poem (or the following poem in Quest for Reality, “Blame Not My Lute,” which I will turn to next in this series). Still, he does inadvertently hint at many things about himself and his society by writing such poems, and these matters, extraneous though they are to literature considered as an art form, could be fruitfully studied. As a work of art, however, as an expression of a crucial moral principle, I don’t get much out of it. I don’t even agree that it is just or spiritually healthy in all cases to hope or wish that the suffering one person has endured from another’s hand should be visited upon that person. There are times for justice, yes -- and times for mercy, too.

By the way, if you wish to study the topic of unrequited love more deeply, the occasion of “To His Lute,” a useful place to start is Wikipedia’s entry on the matter, which I found enlightening:


Finally, I wish to repeat my general disclaimer for this series on the Winters Canon that I offer these analyses to encourage discussion on the fine poems that Yvor Winters commended to us, not to bring discussion to an end. Minds can change, mine included, about this poem or any other I will be scrutinizing in the months ahead.

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