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Jason Powell (ed.), The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, Volume I, Prose (Oxford University Press, 2016)

Jason Powell (ed.), The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, Volume I, Prose (Oxford University Press, 2016). ISBN: 978-0-1992-2860-7 (h/bk), 485 pp., 11 b&w ills., £125.

Reviewed by Chris Stamatakis

[1] As a prose writer, Thomas Wyatt has largely gone ignored by literary historiography. After a brief burst of interest in 9780199228607the decades after Wyatt’s death in 1542 – Richard Sherry’s Treatise of schemes and tropes (1550), an aid to the ‘better vnderstanding of good authors’, acknowledges ‘that ornamente Syr Thomas Wyat’ as a writer who ‘flouryshed’ in eloquence, sought out ‘elegance and proper speaches’, and ‘endeuoured’ to make the English language ‘copyous and plentyfull’ – Wyatt’s prose rhetoric, his facility in ‘proper speaches’, has typically been overlooked. Wyatt does not, for instance, feature in Morris Croll’s magisterial Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm (1966), and has rarely been discussed by recent commentators as a prose writer at all.

[2] Yet he was, in some ways, no less a pioneer of prose genres than a poetic innovator. Wyatt’s Quyete of Mynde (a translation from Plutarch’s Moralia and a self-professedly ‘lytell boke’ dedicated to Queen Katherine of Aragon) is the first printed English translation from Plutarch, and indeed the first classical moral essay published in English. His prose output seems intrinsically entwined with his poetic corpus, and invites many of the same literary-critical questions: questions about his authorial presence in the text; about his ventriloquism, personification, use of voice; about his bivalent strategies of evasiveness on the one hand and crystalline precision on the other; about his adroitness in constructing an illusion of privacy and spoken immediacy; about his techniques of translation from European vernaculars and Latin, and (in the Quyete of Mynde) his perhaps surprising decision to metaphrase verse quotations as prose; and about the character of his syntactical stamp – at times a stark, terse style, what Wyatt himself christened a ‘shorte maner of speche’.

[3] The privileging of Wyatt-the-poet partly reflects a regressive stance towards early Tudor prose. Henrician prose has readily been dismissed, to use Sir Thomas Elyot’s terms from his 1531 Boke named the Governour, as a mere ‘shadowe, or figure of the auncient rhetorike’, an impoverished, dilapidated simulacrum of classical eloquence, something falling short of ‘the other harmony of prose’ grandiloquently monikered by Dryden in the late seventeenth century. Critical neglect of Wyatt’s prose, specifically, has been exacerbated by the absence of a proper edition: Kenneth Muir’s 1963 Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt is a quaint but ultimately rushed, incomplete collection, whose critical inadequacies are only now being remedied by Jason Powell’s meticulous, monumental, authoritative edition, part a two-volume ‘Complete Works’ of Wyatt, and the first complete, scholarly edition of Wyatt’s prose.

[4] Unlike his poems, Wyatt’s prose is (conveniently) dated, inviting a narrative of his cursus as a writer. Powell’s edition adopts a four-fold division, by genre (which coincidentally tallies with chronology): first, The Quyete of Mynde; then Wyatt’s two ‘Fatherly Letters’ of counsel to his son; next, his ‘Diplomatic Correspondence’ comprising thirty-five letters and memoranda from his European embassies; finally, two ‘Treason Trial Documents’, namely Wyatt’s so-called Declaration (composed during his imprisonment in the Tower at the Privy Council’s request, detailing his dealings with traitors during his ambassadorial enterprises) and his Defence (a longer forensic apologia ostensibly designed as a trial speech although Wyatt was pardoned before he could deliver it).

[5] Powell frames Wyatt’s prose with critical introductions, prefatory headnotes, and dexterous but economical footnotes offering extensive biographical and historical annotation, linguistic glosses, and lexicographic ballast. This edition, unashamedly (and necessarily) scholarly though admirably readable, is most obviously a masterpiece of bibliography and codicology. It painstakingly reconstructs the composition of Wyatt’s texts; charts, via stemmatics, the transmission of his prose and gauges its reach, reception, and ‘influence’; attends to the implications of the mise-en-page; and ventures new archival discoveries (identifying the unknown recipient of Wyatt’s last surviving diplomatic letter). Not only a triumph of book history, this edition also establishes invaluable compositional and historical contexts, detailing the genesis, sources, generic affiliations, and rhetorical pedigree of Wyatt’s prose. Powell’s architecture of notes, appendices, and glossaries makes this writing newly legible and intelligible, even to readers familiar with Tudor court culture and Wyatt’s biography.

[6] Book historians and scholars of manuscript circulation will find endless rewards in the textual introductions, apparatus criticus, appendicular descriptions of textual witnesses, and the several high-quality black-and-white illustrations of selected Wyattian prose works. Historians of Tudor politics and diplomacy will relish the wealth of proxy material in the notes and appendices, including biographies of the dramatis personae who formed Wyatt’s diplomatic household. Casual readers and students of literature, oratory, and the arts of translation will rethink thematic approaches to Wyatt’s oeuvre: the detailed introductions before each sub-group answer a long-overdue need to place the writer and his writings in their historical, courtly, diplomatic, and literary contexts, offering lucid readings of an author whose writings frequently remain inscrutable. Powell sensibly substitutes the wild goose chase for ‘authorial intentions’ with tangible evidence of ‘authorial practice’, placing Wyatt’s prose in both literary tradition and early Tudor manuscript culture.

[7] This methodology invites renewed scrutiny of, inter alia, the role played by fathers, the applications of memory, and the pairing of ‘diligence’ with its pragmatic, performative counterpart ‘dexterity’ in the duties of Henrician diplomats. Perhaps most crucially, this edition casts light on Wyatt’s versatility as a prose writer. Powell illuminates some of Wyatt’s trademark stylistic, rhetorical facets, not least the functional ambiguity of his diplomatic language, fusing strategic vagueness with particularising detail. A fascinating leitmotif centres on Wyatt’s deft manipulation of orality. As the king’s ‘oratour’ (Wyatt’s own self-appellation in the Declaration), Wyatt treats royal instructions as scripted responses to perform, despite Charles V’s assertion that ‘kynges be not kings of tonges’. Yet in this same capacity as orator, Wyatt the ambassador, no mere metonym for king and country, necessarily translates this script into improvised locutions during his encounters with foreign dignitaries, turning these conversations back into oralised script in his letters to his taskmasters at home.

[8] Wyatt’s lexical dexterity, the tacit hero of this volume, is charted by the fascinating table of ‘OED Antedatings’ which lists Wyatt’s inaugural use of terms found in, or predating, the Oxford English Dictionary’s citations – one of many gems necessarily squirrelled away in the paratext of Powell’s edition. This catalogue attests Wyatt’s obsession with writerly and readerly procedures, especially those terms figuring the arts of conversation (‘conferring’ as an activity of discussing), or failures to communicate (‘mysrelation’ as false reports, ‘non agrement’ as a failed consensus), or the interface between oral and written (‘discourse’ denoting both a ‘written treatment’ and ‘a talk’), or the modes of signification itself (the verb ‘inport’ for ‘import’, the noun ‘intelligens’ as both ‘news’ and ‘understanding’). Wyatt’s evident versatility, interlingual facility, and appeal to diverse audiences are among this volume’s many intellectual payoffs. Powell’s edition is accessible, rigorous, comprehensive, and indispensable, and will not easily be surpassed.

University College London, September 2016

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