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Rhyme and ruin in Tony Abbott's court


Tony Abbott's head on Henry VIII's bodyThomas Wyatt (1503–1542) was a prominent figure in the court of King Henry VIII. He played an important ambassadorial role in representing the King's petition to Pope Clement VII to have Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn annulled. Wyatt was also an innovative, accomplished poet, the power and complexity of whose work only became fully understood when revisited and studied in the early 20th century.

Even for the tall, handsome and brilliant Wyatt, however, life at the court of Henry VIII was a dangerous, knife-edged business. Wyatt had been an admirer but possibly lover of Boleyn before she caught the royal eye. In this he was not alone. When in 1536 he was imprisoned in the Tower for adultery with Boleyn, he was able to watch from his prison window the beheading of five other accused Boleyn adulterers and then the death of the queen herself. Wyatt survived and, having supporters within Henry's court, was subsequently released.

In his famous poem about his sexual passion, Wyatt disguises the pursuit of Anne Boleyn as a deer hunt:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind
But as for me, helas! I may no more
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore
I am of them that furthest come behind.

The poem ends with a warning. This deer wears a diamond necklace on which is engraved:

Noli me tangere, [Do not touch me], for Caesar's I am
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

This is a classic example, as are some other Wyatt poems, such as 'They flee from me that sometime did me seek', of the courtly poet's language being deliberately ambiguous. It was a matter of self protection.

Little wonder that Wyatt often found court life not only perilous but repugnant and dreamed of escape. Seneca's Stet quicunque volet potens from his tragedy Thyestes became the vehicle for a typically oblique, escapist translation: 'Stand whoso list upon the slipper top/Of court's estate,' Wyatt muses, but as for himself he would 'rejoice' to be 'unknown in court, that hath such brackish joys'.

That arresting word 'brackish' tells us this is no mere idle dreaming but a heartfelt wish. And if there were any doubts, the ferocity of the conclusion resolves them: the meretricious court life prevents self-knowledge — until the end, when it's too late, when a suddenly implacable Death grabs the courtier by the throat:

For him death grippeth right hard by the crop
That is much known of other; and of himself alas
Doth die unknown, dazed with dreadful face.

A hundred years later, Andrew Marvell used the same lines from Seneca to dream of his own escape from the balancing act of living in Cromwell's Republic and either forgetting the regicide or pretending it didn't happen: 'Climb at court for me that will/Giddy favour's slippery hill' he begins and 'Who exposed to others' eyes/Into his own heart ne'er pries/Death to him's a strange surprise' is his equivalent of Wyatt's throat-grabbing Death.

Marvell's tone is less haunted than Wyatt's, but he still had to be very careful — avoiding punishment after the Restoration despite his ambiguously Cromwellian stance during the Republic. His care extended to complete anonymity when he launched some corrosive satires on the corruptions of the Court.

Abraham Cowley, a contemporary of Marvell but unlike him a committed royalist, spent 12 years in exile in France then retired to the country on his return. Unthreatened in the political clime of the Restoration, he wrote a calm and moralistic version of Seneca, imagining the man to whom: 'The face of Death … will terrible appear' because, though 'known to all the world beside/Does not himself, when he is dying know ... what he is, nor whither he's to go'.

Wyatt, Marvell, Cowley and others like them — John Norris (1657–1711), Richard Polwhele (1760–1838) — though separated by centuries, all latched on to the lines of Seneca because these afforded each man an opportunity to express his disenchantment with life at court and at the centres of power. At a pinch, they could claim, if pressed, that they were not giving their own views on the corruption, deviousness, shallowness and self-delusion of contemporary courtiers but simply translating the words of long-departed Seneca (4BC–65AD).

Which brings us to the court of Tony Abbott. There is much here that Wyatt, for example, would recognise — the obsessive secrecy, the suspicion of foreigners, the cruelty, the ecclesiastical connections, the dames and knights, the aggressive Anglophilia.

But there would be one source of relief for Wyatt: he would not need to employ his considerable prosodic talents in order to encode his true meanings. He could come right out and — in the words of Attorney General Brandis — 'say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted'. Or even racist, if you're smart about it.

So, whoso list to rant, rave, insult and bully, I know where is an place for you. Just don't come here in an boat.


Brian Matthews headshotBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Thomas Wyatt, Andrew Marvell, Seneca, Abraham Cowley, George Brandis



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Existing comments

Sir-to-be Tony may find things get slippery quicker than he expected. John Howard's response to Tony's reintroduction of imperial honours was that they are anachronistic. Or, as Shakespeare said in his best Latin: Et tu, Brute.

CLOSE READING | 27 March 2014  

Anyone who thinks they're important is usually just a pompous Sir Moron, (oops ...can I say moron on Eurekastreet?) who can't deal with his or her own pathetic insignificance and the fact that what they do is meaningless and inconsequential.

Annoying Orange | 27 March 2014  

Marvell-us-ly Machiavellian. I think.

Pam | 28 March 2014  

The one thing a ruler who wants to seem strong and in in control wants, is to be laughed at. Methinks King Tony may have made a miscalculation here.

Vin Victory | 28 March 2014  

Like Henry we suffer from a surfeit of clergy. One bishop flees to Rome, alas that a certain abbot did not follow, but another bishop sits still, toad-like, controlling the parliament and makes claim to be a dame too. Behead perhaps but dear sirs, mercy on us, please do not defrock.

Just a common serf | 28 March 2014  

I don't see Tony Abbott as blessed with megalomaniacal tendencies - the same holds for John Howard, Malcolm Fraser and even Julia Gillard. Indeed, Mr Abbott is a curiosity in his Court - a jester who killed the pretenders to the throne. Mr Abbott was a strange fit for the role of jester, whose traditional job it was to speak truth to power. It was not through speaking truth, but rather as an Illywhacker (after Peter Carey's Herbert Badgery) that Mr Abbott succeeded.

David Arthur | 28 March 2014  

People may mock Abbott for this reinstatement of titles, however how do you honour people, who he pointed out have gone above & beyond to serve the nation? Symbolic as it is & associated with the crown, we can only use symbolic gestures to express our admiration & gratitude...what better why to do so? Good on you Mr Abbott for giving the nation something further to strive for in service to our country....more than ever we need true heroes to stand out.

Penny | 28 March 2014  

So interesting that the articulate Quentin Bryce, painted in feminist purple, didn't connect the words "no thankyou" and "inappropriate" in response to Sir Tony.

Anna Summerfield | 28 March 2014  

Methinks Wyatt was associated with the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catharine of Aragon, not Anne Boleyn.

Peter Horan | 28 March 2014  

Falling from favour at court is one of the hazards of being there at all. Wyatt is crucial to the introduction of the sonnet into English but one of his best poems is a long one about the happiness of living in the country away from court, forever. There is no question that Wyatt knew Anne Boleyn, but it is disputed whether he 'knew' Anne Boleyn. Whether he told anyone about this inside or outside a poem remains a matter of pure conjecture. Some Henry scholars say, definitely not.

CLOSE READING | 31 March 2014  

Penny wrote, "...however how do you honour people, who he pointed out have gone above & beyond to serve the nation?" Doesn't she know we had the "Order of Australia" and others beside. Why do we need English ones when we have Australian honours?

Peter | 01 April 2014  

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