The more I read about Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Whoso List to Hunt, the more I love it!
I’m a fan of the Anne Boleyn story anyway. I enjoy almost anything about her, and knowing that this poem is supposedly about her makes it especially enticing! Whoso List to Hunt is an adaptation of Petrarch’s Rime 190, but it is much, much different.
In Petrarch’s Rime 190, the speaker sees a beautiful deer and pursues her. The poem ends with the narrator falling in the stream and the doe being gone when he comes back up. He also notes that she’s wearing topaz and diamonds.
In Wyatt’s version, his “doe” (or supposedly, Anne Boleyn) is dressed with diamonds only, a point addressed in this analysis in the Guardian. Topaz represents chastity. This doe has entertained suitors, it sounds like, and has maybe even entertained the speaker before, and therefore she is not worthy of the topaz.
But she’s not entertaining suitors anymore. She is owned, as this analysis points out, by the owner of the land. Women are property, don’t forget, and once the lord of the land, King Henry VIII, claimed his prize, no one else was allowed (or would dare) to touch her.
The point of the speaker’s chase is moot, he says, using this line: “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.” Pursuing her may be his desire, but it will get him nowhere.
The final couplet is “‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am, And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.” In other words, Don’t touch me. I belong to King Henry. And even though you think I am but a meek doe, I am entirely too much of an animal for you to handle.
Anne Boleyn’s fire is captivating to me; her determination to get the throne was unstoppable, and she was undeterred by her critics. It’s good to be favored by the most powerful man in the country, but when he changes his mind and the dictator-king becomes paranoid, falls in love with his mistresses and blames his one-time love for not producing a son, it’s horrendous. And he disposed of her the way we today would ditch spoiled leftovers. Her ambition cost Boleyn her life.
Whoso List to Hunt is about a time before Boleyn experienced real nastiness, when she was just becoming out of reach for other men and was the apple of the king’s eye. Boleyn’s story was tragic; she wasn’t innocent, of course, but she was chewed up and spit out. She produced England’s greatest queen, and yet she did not get to see her progeny succeed. She is one of the reasons I adore British royalty, history and literature. So thank you, Sir Thomas Wyatt, for this lovelorn reminder of Boleyn’s beauty and vulnerability.