Whoso List To Hunt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind
But as for me, alas, I may no more;
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
"Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame." 

This sonnet was written as a cry of dispair, as a warning to others and as an acceptance of the way things had to be.  Written in the early 1520's, it was an expression of love for the brightest creature at Henry's court.  She came to England fresh from her training in France:  her wit, style, and grace had a touch of continental dash which set her apart from the rest of Queen Katherine's prim and devout ladies.  Barely 20, her dancing black eyes already knew every step to every measure, and were suitable partners to her bold words and daring smiles.


She gathered many hunters about her.  Here, it was said, was "a fresh young damsel, that could trip and go."  She was not a classic beauty – she was too thin, too sallow.  And yet she was dangerously beguiling.  She wore her thick black hair down her back – the onyx whisps lifting gently as she went through the paces of the 'Frog Galliard' and 'My Lord of Oxenford's March'.  Her white teeth would show hard and brilliant with every outrageous comment:  each word shot quickly and with deadly accuracy.  She loved to gossip; she loved to gamble.  Her long throat would lean forward as she peered at the dice she threw down during a game of backgammon.

As she would lean her throat forward at the last moment of her life, to meet the edge of a gilded sword.

This lady was Anne Boleyn – later called 'The Witch', 'The Night Crow', 'The Great Whore'.  On her coronation progress the crowds stood silent and staring.  On a tour of the northern counties, the women of the villages spat at her.


But now, nearly ten years before she would marry Henry VIII, whoso list to hunt still had a chance.  Numbered amongst these hopefuls was a poet, specializing in the sonnet, Sir Thomas Wyatt.  He saw her first in 1522, when she was introduced to court as a young performer in a masquerede, holding a carved mask in front of her sprite's face, singing in a high, clear voice.  'Fainting' and with 'wearied mind' he persued her, but fast and knowing, she 'fleeth afore' leaving him 'furthest come behind.'  With the net he had, he could only 'seek to hold the wind.' 

Then, in 1524-1525  he met up with a much more formidable obstacle – more threatening than a mere slip of a dark girl:  his King.  Henry had grown weary of his previous mistress – Anne's older sister, Mary – and had become deeply enamored of Anne.  And as soon as his desire became common knowledge, Sir Thomas and his companions were put 'out of doubt', for now each 'may spend his time in vain'.

Just by becoming the object of 'Ceasar's' passion, the hind had been run to ground.  She had proven her wildness and fire – in time she would be tamed.  She was his property now:  'Noli me tangere':  'Touch me not'.  All that was left for Wyatt to do was write this sonnet of longing and resignation.  Maybe he continued to watch her – through arguments, jealousies, accusations, miscarriages, trials…waiting for the diamond words around her neck to cast some of their fire and light up the caverns of her face.

Sometimes tragedy embraces both ends, like a serpent grasping its own tail:  Wyatt's son was hanged, drawn and quartered for leading a rebellion against Queen Mary, allegedly fighting for the interests of Elizabeth Tudor, Anne Boleyn's daughter.

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7 responses to “Whoso List To Hunt

  1. Wow. What a grand history lesson in the guise of a fascinating post! I have said it before and I'll repeat now…..keep the stories coming! It's my only way of taking in these fantastic facts. I am now all mentally immersed in that time. Wonderful!

  2. I love reading your posts! I've always had an interest in the wives of Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn is my favorite.

  3. Thank you! I love poetry and once upon a time stories… more, more… 🙂

  4. Lauri – isn't it fine to lose yourself someplace else – to be…otherly?
    Aubrey (HEY!) M. – Anne glowed with an inner fire – not a pious fire (Aragon, Parr) or a stupid, licentious fire (Howard)…she burned with wit and intelligence: she must have been spectacular to have known.
    MarsV – welllll…I have something on the burner which needs some redirection, some punching up…but it will make its appearance soon!

  5. Unfortunately at the moment I have to go be "otherly" with some bacteria in the lab, now.Bye and have a simply marvelous day!I won't be calling! 😉

  6. I have written three papers on this very poem (one of the occupational hazards of being an English major). I always love it when I run across it however and I'm glad you posted this.

  7. fascinating! an embarrassment of riches, as usual — gorgeous portraits and a rather strange sonnet to add dimensions to a historical sketch. when you write it, the past is understood by the interstitial elements, not in the easily recordable facts — the time and place are in the language of a poem or perspective of a portrait!

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