The Long Public Life of a Short Private Poem
Reading and Remembering Thomas Wyatt
Peter Murphy



More Learning, the British Library, and the Song of the Professor

What Holy Grave, What Worthy Sepulture?

The Continuing Journey of Wyatt’s Book

George Nott had Wyatt’s book—or Henry Harington’s book—rebound, an improvement that was also a profound interference with the physical structure of the object. He also added pictures to it, one a copy of an engraving he had made to put in his published Wyatt book, another an image from John Leland’s 1542 book, from which his engraving was adapted.

The addition of pictures intensifies the bookification created by the cut pages and the rich binding. In doing this Nott repeats, in careful, late-era form, what John Harington the Elder did when he copied Surrey’s “The Great Macedon” into Wyatt’s book as a title-moment to the translations of the Penitential Psalms, topping it with Surrey’s coronet-like initials. The object resulting from Nott’s decoration and transformation of the physical being of Wyatt’s book is like the Ark that Surrey says Alexander made for Old Dan Homer’s works. Nott’s new book is a memorial, but a memorial incorporating into itself a piece of the person and poems being memorialized, like a reliquary containing the writing hand of a Saint. Or: the images Nott inserted look like carvings on a headstone, and the new book looks like the headstone itself, standing in the graveyard of culture.

There is also a fine-spun highly attenuated thread of life in this new, old book, stretching all the way back to the moment Wyatt’s secretary took the pages from Wyatt and started entering the poems. Nott loved Wyatt; he clearly felt himself to still be within the force field of Thomas Wyatt, Knight, whom he served. The book was handed to Nott out of the expiring past, as it had been to John Harington the Elder, and Nott accepted it out of responsibility to the faint vibration of Wyatt’s touch. To change the book so it better memorializes Wyatt was for Nott the fulfillment of his place in the handing forward of Wyatt’s deep-witted spirit: Nott’s place as a Clergyman, as a knower of old things, as an inheritor of the Antiquarian tradition, and as a self-appointed keeper of the (pure, restorative) Flame of Culture.

Life and Death in the Holy Grave of the British Library

In early 1889 the British Library purchased Wyatt’s now-bookified manuscript using a fund established in 1829 by the Earl of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton, and so it acquired its modern title: BL MS Egerton 2711. This purchase, which amounted to a change in state, brought to a point the slowly wrought change in the status of English-language poems in English-speaking culture, the slowly rising status of English literature generally, and all the accumulating knowledge that allowed for the discovery of its existence and the estimation of its value.

Until 1889 Wyatt’s manuscript had been in private hands. After finding its way to the apparently extraordinary safety of the Harington family library, and serving that family for so long in various ways, Wyatt’s book was lent to Thomas Percy, and then to G. F. Nott. As we have seen, Nott took the Antiquarian’s high hand with this precious relic, though he didn’t write in it, as Percy had. And then he did, or didn’t do, an astonishing thing: he kept it. He also kept Mary Howard’s book, borrowed from the Duke of Devonshire, which from a social faux pas point of view is even more astonishing. When Nott died his huge collections of old stuff—books, paintings, coins, manuscripts, bronzes, and so on—were sold, in early 1842. The library alone took two weeks to auction off. Among the books sold were the two manuscripts, now bound in similar modern ways, “books” in the contemporary sense of the term.

The interregnum between the safety of stable family libraries and the impregnable confines of the British Library is an exposed time for these manuscripts, and it is lucky they survived as they did, rebound and all. Mary Howard’s book, similarly bookified by Nott, was purchased by the British Library in the 1840s. The Harington family book disappeared for a while and then surfaced in a sale of the books of a person named James Bowker; Bernard Quaritch, a dealer working for the library, purchased it. Bowker was an attorney, apparently not connected to any scholarly networks, antiquarian, professorial, or otherwise, and so scholars had not been able to see Wyatt’s book for most of the century.

National Treasure

Like the people into whose hands Wyatt’s book fell over the years, the library immediately marked up the manuscript, this time with vigorous declarations of ownership. The library had, after all, paid for it. It is stamped in five places with marks referring to the Egerton bequest (this Continuing Thanks could easily have been required by the deed of gift), and a librarian also wrote in the book, tidily, discreetly, but quite in keeping with the practice of previous custodians of the book:

This note marks its place in a filing system of other old books: MS Egerton 2711.

The Nation, in the form of the British Library, hadn’t just adopted the book, as most previous participants in its life had. The British Library owned Wyatt’s book. A person who once lived, Thomas Wyatt, owned things: a castle, a pile of papers that may or may not have been bound as a “book.” The King sometimes took Wyatt’s things, because he could, and sometimes gave them back or gave him new things. Wyatt’s son then had this book, naturally, we might say, and then the Johns Harington had it for centuries. Did they own it? Yes, certainly, but they didn’t sell it, and they didn’t buy it. Henry Harington lent or sent it happily: he didn’t sell it either. George Nott didn’t sell it. His heirs did, though, and eventually the book’s time in the marketplace allowed it to escape from the informal world of the personal library and enter on a new sort of life, the life of a national treasure owned by the State.

The British Library, behaving just like an Owner of Things, put its marks upon the book and made rules about how it would be used and where it would be kept. Not everyone would be allowed to touch it, but people with the right credentials could, then and now (though those credentials keep creeping Upward). Professors, for instance, not rich and not members of any English social elite but rather members of a new profession and a new kind of elite, gained access to it and adapted its contents for consumption by the growing business of professional literary scholarship.

Glowing Coal, or Ashy Cinder?

Nott’s alterations erase traces of the past but also include the book in the present and are in that way signs of continuing if somewhat chaotic vitality. In its first moments of ownership the British Library, with its stamps and jottings, participates in this life too, but these alterations have a new purpose. The library’s marks are like the wrappings of the Mummies in the British Museum next door; they clothe the book in preparation for its entry into the eternity of a brightly lit, accessible, and well-kept Crypt. They are (meant to be) the last marks. After being stamped, the book is meant to be stable forever more. No one will be allowed to mark or write in it again. When it is read, a white-gloved functionary of the library will stand by, watching, to make sure no reader takes the book’s animation of their feelings or reanimation of Wyatt’s old feelings too personally. The British Library means to be the last owner of the book.

Like the Museum’s stuffed animals, Wyatt’s book has been killed so that it may live (in a museum). If “killed” seems too strong, call it Cryogenically frozen. The library’s aim is to stop the book from moving through history and thus turn it into a motionless witness from the past, which is a different thing. It is now a resident of the Eternal Past that the Museum and the Library present within their walls. No doubt some of the many people who will thereby gain the opportunity to see the book will want to take it in their hands, trace the old writing with their fingers, tuck it into a bag, and then do something with it expressing their susceptibility to its ancient charm, something that would ruin and reanimate it. Since the book is now loudly, aggressively the Nation’s property, to do so would, of course, be a crime.

The More Things Change . . .

Surrey’s poem “The Great Macedon” presents Wyatt’s psalms as a national treasure, in parallel with Homer’s place in Greek nationhood. Surrey was, in some people’s eyes, the Nation in himself, which eventually got him in trouble. When Harington inscribes Surrey’s Quasi-Coronet in front of Wyatt’s psalms he is saying something about Surrey, Wyatt, and nationhood. Percy, writing in the manuscript, was working out the Nation’s literary heritage and fixing the manuscript’s location in that heritage by cross-referencing it to Tottel. Nott, a step on from Percy and using Wyatt (and Surrey) in a project of national restoration, follows Surrey in making Thomas Wyatt into Old Dan Wyatt, displayed in his fancy book/Ark. The library at the British Museum, as it was known then, is motivated in the same way, and the library also, in some ways, is itself the Nation, like Henry Howard; so it makes sense that the Library aggressively stamps the manuscript into a National conceptual space. The nature of this space has changed over the centuries, and so the Library means it in a more final way than previous holders of the book. There it will stay, until something drastic happens.

Something Drastic always does happen, of course. She who kissed him left; Wyatt died suddenly, Surrey got his head chopped off, as did Thomas Wyatt the Younger; Queen Mary perished, suddenly; Percy’s manuscript went up in flames. Ritson went mad; George Frederic Nott fell off a scaffold, hit his head, and was never the same. Someday, England will be only a memory. Where will the book be? Who will remember the poem?

The Professors Read Wyatt’s Book (in the Library)

Ewald Flügel, a German English Professor

If the Scots were primary influences in the teaching of English, German Professors were, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, the strongest influence on the practice of scholarship directed at English literature. This influence, which was by its nature comparative and cross-cultural, led to the prominence of philology, language study, and detailed textual criticism in scholarly practice—and some other things, like the creation or articulation of an Anglo-Saxon heritage and the resurrection of Beowulf as an “epic” progenitor of literature in English. German scholars trained rising scholars, especially Americans, and they talked to each other in journals that dealt entirely with literature in English; one of these was the journal Anglia, founded in 1878. It is still publishing today. In the early years one of its editors was Ewald Flügel, who, being disappointed in his desire for a position at the University of Leipzig, where he was trained, took advantage of the growing international market for his skills and became one of the founders of the Department of English at the then brand-new Stanford University.

In 1893 Flügel published what amounts to a carefully edited, highly attentive edition of Wyatt’s poetry in a series of two articles in Anglia. He begins by lamenting the obscurity into which Nott’s textual accomplishments have fallen, saying publishers have “ransacked Nott’s treasure chest”: “All of the fine, pioneering work that Nott did in this area is in danger, I think, of not being updated.”

Here is Flügel’s reprinting of “They Flee from Me”:

This is international professorial academic culture and convention in its fully mature form, as created in the nineteenth century and as it is still practiced and represented today. Informed by the study of the various printed and manuscript poems, the work pioneered by Nott, Flügel’s reprinting, with elaborate effort, puts the labor and learning that have produced it right on the surface of the page, with reading priority communicated by font size. It uses a full set of printed conventions that allow for a great density of information to be presented very economically. In the top left are the page numbers of Wyatt’s book, including Percy’s “46.” The other number (“26b”) refers to the physical leaf of the book, in the British Library’s way of counting: “26 verso.”

“1 ent.,” top center, is a transcription of the first attempt at creating a conceptual field in which to locate individual poems, written by someone, sometime, at the top of the page in Wyatt’s book. Flügel shows us how the words are spelled by Wyatt’s secretary, though not how they are written; he represents the secretary’s single mark of punctuation, the virgule in line 1, by a straight printed line, a convention well established by this time. Other scholars would have known what the line meant. All of the variations from Tottel’s text are listed below the printed poem, their position below the poem communicating their subordinate status. As for Nott, for Flügel the poem as entered by Wyatt’s secretary and initialed by Wyatt is the important version. Flügel also notes the page in Nott’s book on which the poem appears, and the page on which Nott’s note to the poem appears.

Flügel compresses his debt to the labor of centuries into a dense but readable and remarkably informative (if slightly idiosyncratic) text. It is, in this history, a new kind of object. It is made possible by the existence of the British Library, where a scholar like Ewald Flügel can go and ask to see a three-hundred-year-old book, even if he doesn’t know any old families with old libraries. He just has to fill out a slip of paper, and someone brings it right to him. They also check to make sure he gives it back.

Even So, Another Mistake

Flügel represents only selected information from the page of Wyatt’s book. He does not represent the math on the left side, nor does he reproduce Percy’s note in the upper right. Leaving off the math is simple: it floats on an upper temporal layer rendered transparent by Flügel’s learning, and so he doesn’t even see it. Setting the book into the conceptual field of “Wyatt’s poetry” has dissolved away some of these longtime companions of the poem. They are not important for creating this new object. The invisibility of Percy’s note is a little aggressive, though understandable. Percy’s cross-reference to Tottel’s book has been superseded. It is no longer needed. Percy’s great accomplishment, the correlation between old handwriting and old print, is now just a bit of unnecessary distraction. Of course, Flügel does retain the “1 ent” at the top, another note made by someone other than Flügel trying to make sense of what is on the page, which is arguably irrelevant in the same way. Flügel was, simply put, more interested in the (older) note.

Flügel also makes a mistake: “Nicht in A, D.” That is, he says that “They Flee from Me” is not found in two other manuscripts, the so-called “Arundel Harington” and Mary Howard’s book, the “Devonshire” manuscript. Our poem isn’t in the Arundel Harington, true enough; but it is in the Devonshire. The centuries of conceptual weaponry Flügel had in his hand didn’t prevent him from just missing the poem in Mary Howard’s book, which he had looked through carefully. Perhaps an ill-timed yawn, induced by the task of reading old handwriting in a language not his own; perhaps a hunger pang, perhaps a twinge of distracting sadness or exhilaration: but, as G. F. Nott said: “Where is the man whose memory has always at command even what he knows, when he wishes to apply it?”

The Progress of Learning

No matter. Flügel’s mistake is corrected some twenty years later by an English scholar named Agnes Foxwell, the product of training at the University of London. The first woman to record her thinking about our poem since the 1530s, Foxwell advances the documentary project one more step and also evolves the new object. She doesn’t mention Flügel’s articles in her book The Poems of Sir Thomas Wiat, published in 1913. One hopes she read them, since it would have saved her a lot of work: