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The Lover Compareth his State to a Ship in Perilous Storm Tossed on the Sea -- Thomas Wyatt

Guest poem sent in by David Florkow
(Poem #1624) The Lover Compareth his State to a Ship in Perilous Storm Tossed on the Sea
 My galley chargèd with forgetfulness
 Thorough sharp seas, in winter nights doth pass
 'Tween rock and rock; and eke mine enemy, alas,
 That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;
 And every oar a thought in readiness
 As though that death were light in such a case.
 An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
 Of forcèd sighs and trusty fearfulness.
 A rain of  tears,  a cloud of dark disdain,
 Hath done the wearied cords great hindrance
 Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance.
 The stars be hid that led me to this pain.
 Drownèd is reason that should me consort, [some versions: comfort]
 And I remain despairing of the port.
-- Thomas Wyatt
The call went out recently for old poems, and this is one I'd like to give
some attention to and share with WM readers.  For background information on
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 - 1542) see my introductory remarks to "Whoso List to
Hunt" (Poem #957).  Like that poem, this is also a sonnet, also translated
from Petrarch; in this case Rime 189. This is helpful as readers can turn to
Petrarch's original (see: for
original and a translation)  to help unpack Wyatt's poem, which with its
compressed,  powerful, language, may still remain oblique: the beauty of the
language may trump meaning.

The title - "The Lover Compareth his State to a Ship in Perilous Storm Tossed
on the Sea" - pretty much sets the scene.  Although not found in either
Petrarch or Wyatt and believed added by a subsequent editor (perhaps Tottel,
editor of the 1557 Miscellany), it attests to the perceived need for some
clarity as to what's actually happening in the poem, intended to help
readers the way titles may aid and abet paintings.  This text is taken from
the Norton Anthology of Literature, 6th ed, but I have amended some of the
punctuation to accord with that of R. A. Rebholz, editor of Sir Thomas Wyatt
- The Complete Poems (1978), and added, in square brackets, his preferred
reading of the second last line, which I think more probable: he notes, at
p. 349: "'Should me comfort.' W's addition."

Onwards then, to the poem. Note first the rhyme scheme: ABBA ACCA DEED FF.
Not your typical Petrarchian sestet of CDC CDC, is it.   As I read the poem
it doesn't break into two parts (typically two stanzas of eight and six
lines) but into a six line statement of the lover's condition and the
comparison with a storm-tossed ship / lover; another six lines focussing on
the stress and strain of the storm on the ship; and the final couplet
summing up.  The punctuation - full stops, upon which both editors agree  -
I think supports this reading.

The lover, as 'galley', as vessel, 'chargèd' - accused? more likely given
Petrarch, laden, fully loaded - with forgetfulness, sails through sharp seas
in winter nights between 'rock and rock' (Scylla and Charybdis in Petrarch).
But what is the nature of 'mine enemy, alas, / That is my lord' and who
'steereth with cruelness'?  If the poet/lover is seriously to be compared to
a ship, than the steering capacity should be 'reason', guiding the lover
through dangerous waters with his burden of forgetfulness.  But reason meets
a bad end, as the last couplet shows, and while considered for comfort,
seems not currently available. The cause of such great ambivalence in the
poet,  something both desired and feared, both enemy and lord, may be Love,
specifically his love for a lady who now spurns him and insists he leave and
forget her.  Driven by such 'cruelness', love may be both enemy and lord.
With the alacrity of those in personal danger yet still afloat, each oar is
as a thought in readiness; brave sailors habitually making light of an
uncertain fate: a courtier's life?

But the galley is under some stress. In the second sestet lines 7 and 10
indicate stress on the galley (lover); these lines bracket the mistress's
emotional symptoms - forced sighs, tears, fearfulness, and 'a cloud of dark
disdain' - which are the source of our poet's grief: it is they that 'Hath
done the wearied cords great hindrance'.  But he is wronged: surrounded by
error and ignorance his lady's eyes, which previously had led him on, are
hidden now as he rails against them as stars relied upon for navigation  And
so we have the lover compared to a ship in a storm; we have the ship
buffeted by weather / emotions; we have the suggestion that the mistress is
acting unreasonably through error and ignorance;  and we have a strong
concluding couplet.

Thus the last two lines: "Drownèd is reason that should me comfort / And I
remain despairing of the port."  He is giving in to his grief.  Reason, his
lady's good judgment, which should have comforted him,  is drowned in the
storm of her emotions, and the lover despairs of shelter and refuge.




Petrarch's original:

37 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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In addition to imitations of works by the classical writers Seneca and Horace, Wyatt experimented in stanza forms including the rondeau, epigrams, terza rima, ottava rima songs, satires and also with monorime, triplets with refrains, quatrains with different length of line and rhyme schemes, quatrains with codas, and the French forms of douzaine and treizaine.

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