Whoso List to Hunt
A Poem by Thomas Wyatt (1503?-1542)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Year of Publication
Rhyme Scheme
Text of the Poem
Summary of the Poem
Explanatory Notes
Figures of Speech
Questions, Essay Topics
Biography of Wyatt
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2010

......."Whoso List to Hunt" is an alternate title for Thomas Wyatt's "The Lover Despairing to Attain Unto His Lady's Grace Relinquisheth the Pursuit." The longer title says that a lover pursuing a woman gives up the chase because he despairs of winning her favor.

Type of Work

.......“Whoso List to Hunt” is a sonnet, a lyric poem with fourteen lines and a specific rhyme scheme. 
.......The sonnet format originated in Sicily in the thirteenth century with Giacomo da Lentino (1188-1240), a lawyer. The poetic traditions of the Provençal region of France apparently influenced him, but he wrote his poems in the Sicilian dialect of Italian. Some authorities credit another Italian, Guittone d'Arezzo (1230-1294), with originating the sonnet. The English word "sonnet" comes from the Italian word "sonetto," meaning "little song." Some early sonnets were set to music, with accompaniment provided by a lute.
.......The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), a Roman Catholic priest, popularized the sonnet form. Other notable Italian sonneteers were Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italy's most famous and most accomplished writer, and Guido Cavalcante (1255-1300). 
.......Petrarch's sonnets each consist of an eight-line stanza (octave) and a six-line stanza (sestet). The first stanza presents a theme, and the second stanza develops it or answers a question presented by the octave. The rhyme scheme is as follows: (1) first stanza (octave): ABBA, ABBA; (2) second stanza (sestet): CDE, CDE (or CDC, CDC; or CDE, DCE).
.......The sonnet form was introduced in England by Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547). They translated Italian sonnets into English and wrote sonnets of their own. Wyatt himself wrote more than one hundred original poems, many of them sonnets. "Whoso list to Hunt" is based on a theme developed in one of Petrarch's sonnets.
.......Wyatt and Surrey sometimes replaced Petrarch's scheme of an eight-line stanza and a six-line stanza with three four-line stanzas and a two-line conclusion. Wyatt used this structural scheme in "Whoso List to Hunt." 
.......In Italy, England, and elsewhere between the thirteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the most common theme of sonnets was love. Sonnets in later times also focused on religion, politics, and other topics. 

Year of Publication

.......Richard Tottel published “Whoso List to Hunt” in London in 1557 in an anthology entitled Songes and Sonettes Written by the Ryght honorable Lord Henry Howard, late Earle of Surrey, and others. The volume contained a total of two hundred seventy-one poems.

Rhyme Scheme and Meter

.......The poem has a rhyme scheme of abba abba cbbc bb. The meter is iambic pentameter, a pattern in which a line has five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables—ten syllables in all. However, several lines in "Whoso List to Hunt" have extra syllables. Lines 2 and 3 reveal the predominant iambic-pentameter pattern:

But AS..|..for ME,..|..LAS,..|..I may..|..no more.
The VAIN..|..tra VAIL..|..hath WEAR..|..ied ME..|..so SORE
Background and Summary of the Poem

.......Thomas Wyatt's father was a member of the Privy Council of England's King Henry VIII. This fact—along with Thomas's good looks, sociability, and knowledge of foreign languages and music—enabled him to make inroads at the king's court. He served Henry in various roles, most notably as a diplomat in France and Italy. In the latter country, he became interested in the sonnets of Petrarch. The sonnet—sonetto in Italian—was a type of poem that had not yet been introduced to England. After returning home, Wyatt translated many of Petrarch's sonnets into English and began writing his own sonnets.
.......While serving the king in the 1520s, Wyatt became interested in an attractive and witty young lady who frequented the court, Ann Boleyn. But a few years later, the king himself began courting Boleyn while seeking an annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry later married Boleyn after declaring his union with Catherine invalid. Consequently, Wyatt, who was in an unhappy marriage, had to give up any thoughts of winning Boleyn for himself. His sonnet is believed to be an expression of his frustration at this turn of events. 
.......The poem tells of a deer hunt in which several riders are chasing a hind (female deer). The deer hunt and the hind are both metaphors, the hunt representing young men pursuing an alluring woman at the king's court and the hind representing the woman herself, presumably Boleyn. In plain English, the poem says the following:

.......Whoever wishes to hunt, I know where there is a deer. But don't count on me to ride it down with you. I no longer have the desire. The work it takes has made me very tired, and I am now farther behind in the chase than anyone else. 
.......Yet I find it difficult to take my mind off the deer, and as she continues to run I follow. But I weaken; my enthusiasm is gone. Consequently, I am quitting the chase since trying to catch the deer is as futile as trying to catch the wind in a net. I advise others to quit the chase too, lest their time is wasted. Be aware that the hind wears a necklace encrusted with diamonds that spell out a warning that no hunter dares to touch her, for she belongs to the ruler of the land and she is wild even though she seems tame.
Text of the Poem

.......Following is the 1557 text of the poem, followed by explanatory notes.
Whoso List to Hunt
By Thomas Wyatt

Whoso1 list2 to hunt, I know where is an hind,3
But as for me, hélas,4 I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.

Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw5 from the deer, but as she fleeth afore6
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens7 in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Who list her hunt,8 I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven9 with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:

Noli me tangere,10 for Caesar's11 I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.


1....Whoso: Whosoever, whoever.
2....list: Desires, wishes.
3....hind: female deer and metaphor for Ann Boleyn.
4....hélas (ay LA): Alas in French,
5....Draw: Withdraw.
6....afore: Before.
7....Sithens: Since.
8....Who list her hunt: Who wishes to hunt her. Poets frequently alter word order for effect. For example, Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, "Something wicked this way comes." In ordinary conversation, a person would say, "Something wicked comes this way."
9....graven: Engraved.
10..Noli me tangere: Latin, "Do not touch me," words Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene (John: 20:17). 
11..Caesar's: Henry VIII's.


Unattainable Love

.......The speaker chases a woman whom he cannot—and must not—catch, for she is a prize of the ruler of the land. If the speaker continues to pursue her, he will incur the wrath of the ruler and probably lose his head. In real life, King Henry VIII accused Wyatt of committing adultery with his wife, Ann Boleyn (apparently the hind in the poem), and imprisoned him in the Tower of London in 1536. The charges against him were dismissed. Ironically, it was Ann Boleyn who lost her head in the same year as Wyatt's imprisonment after she fell out of favor with the king. 

Bowing to Absolute Power

.......There comes a time when the wisest course in a struggle to achieve a goal is to cease striving. Such is the case with the author of "Whoso List to Hunt," Thomas Wyatt. When pursuing Ann Boleyn, he encounters an all-powerful rival, King Henry VIII. What the headstrong Henry wants, he gets. Wyatt well knows that defying the headstrong Henry can only result in an appointment with an executioner. Consequently, he yields to the king. Wyatt's poem is an allegory that explains the futility of opposing an irresistible force.

Unattainable Goal

.......The poem can stand as a metaphor for the frustration a person experiences after circumstances prevent him or her from achieving a goal. This is a timeless theme that occurs frequently in literature. In Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, the title character's ridiculously long nose prevents him from competing for the hand of the woman he loves. In the story of Tantalus in Greek mythology, the gods of Olympus cast Tantalus, a Lydian king, into Hades for offending them. There, he stands in a pool of water. Above him is a fruit tree. Whenever he tries to quench his thirst by stooping to drink from the pool, the water recedes. Whenever he tries to satisfy his hunger with fruit from the tree, the wind blows the fruit out of his reach. Tantalus is thus doomed to spending eternity in frustration. 

Figures of Speech

Examples of figures of speech in the poem are the following:

Line 1:...Metaphor: comparison of a woman to a hind (female deer)
Line 1: ..Alliteration: Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind
Line 3: ..Alliteration: so sore
Line 5:...Alliteration: Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Line 8:...Metaphor: comparison of the task of catching and winning the woman to catching wind with a net.
Line 14:.Paradox: And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
Study Questions and Writing Topics

1...Write a sonnet on a topic of your choice. 
2...Line 8 says, "Sithens in a net, I seek to hold the wind." Write a short essay on an experience of yours in which your attempt to complete a task or achieve a goal was like trying to catch the wind in a net.
3...Write an essay arguing that Wyatt was innocent of (or guilty of) committing adultery with Ann Boleyn. You will need to research the life of Wyatt and Boleyn. 
4...Write an essay that analyzes another poem by Wyatt.