Throwback Thursdays! We’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces from the last 30 years of Scribendi.
The Hunter and the Hunted: Images of Women in the Poems of Wyatt and Penser
Sara Selis- University of Denver – 1990
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 farthest cometh 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 There is written her fair neck round about: “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”
-Sir Thomas Wyatt
Like as a huntsman
Like as a huntsman, after weary chase, Seeing the game from him escaped away, Sits down to rest him in some shady place, With panting hounds beguiled of their prey Su after long pursuit and vain assay,
When I all weary had the chase forsook. The gentle deer returned the self-same way,
Thinking to quench her thirst at the next brook. There she, beholding me with milder look, Sought not to fly, but fearless still did bide:
Till I in hand her yet half trembling took, And with her own good will her firmly tied.
Strange thing, me seemed, to see a beast so wild, So goodly won, with her own will beguiled.
In her introduction to Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Differences in Early Modern Europe, Margaret Ferguson discusses the idea that, to men of the Renaissance, woman was not an individual to be known but an animal to be tamed. Writers of Renaissance conduct books, she says, often “detected a problem: how could the ‘necessary’ obedience be in scribed in what they considered the most recalcitrant of animals, woman?” Ferguson later reveals that one such conduct book “listed the techniques to ‘tame’ a wife and compared them favorably to the methods used to tame lions, bulls
Of course, before one can tame a wild animal (such as women were so often deemed), one must first hunt the animal down. This “hunting down” of women is the subject of the two poems explored here-“Whoso list to hunt” by Sir Thomas Wyatt, and “Like as a huntsman, after weary chase” by Edmund Spenser. In both poems, the respective speakers (whom I will refer to as the poets themselves, just to simplify things) endure much hardship and at one point both renounce the futile chase. The difference is that Spenser, unlike Wyatt, does eventually “catch” his “dear” (although later we will question just what kind of “catch” he has really made). The poems reveal the misunderstood nature of woman through the eyes of Wyatt and Spenser. For Wyatt, woman is completely elusive and is as unknowable as the deer; for Spenser, woman is accorded the status of a more active, “real” woman, but in the end, Spenser understands her motives scarcely better than does Wyatt.
The basic thematic similarity between the two poems is, of course, the notion that the pursuit of woman is a hunt in which the seemingly innocent deer eludes the frustrated hunter. This is hardly the romantic search for a “real” woman of soul and spirit. Instead, it is the hope of a conquest and, we may presume, an eventual “taming.” In line 2 of “Like as a huntsman,” Spenser uses the word “game” to mean wild animals taken in hunting, but we can also think of
the whole love chase as a game in which there seem to be no winners. Both hunter and hunted know the rules, and the absurdity of such a game, but both continue anyway, at least for a while.
The hunt is full of toil and frustration. Wyatt calls it a “vayne travail” that “hath wearied me so sore”; Spenser calls it a “weary chase,” a “long pursuit” and a “vaine assay.” Both poems present the clear image of a man left far behind the rest of the pack. In line 4, Wyatt is “of them that farthest cometh behind,” and Spenser, “[s]eeing the game from him escapt away” (line 2), must sit down to rest. In Sir Thomas Wyatt, Serio Baldi writes of the “Whoso list to hount” poem, “[Wyatt] begins by stating yet once more the irreconcilable conflict in him between opposing forces [i.e., the desire to continue the chase vs. the desire to give it up], and then sets his own inexplicable state of feeling in opposition to reason … ” This statement applies to Spenser’s poem as well, for in it, too, there is the frustrated power of the unsuccessful hunter.
Eventually, both Wyatt and Spenser decide to renounce the hunt. Wyatt seems to have given up already at the beginning of his poem (line 2: “But as for me, helas, I may no more”), while Spenser expresses this in line 6: “When I already had the chace forsook.” Here we come to the “fork in the road.” The similarities end, for while Wyatt’s “Diere” stays out of sight, Spenser’s “deare” re turns just in time to resume the chase. The question is: how does each poet handle the absence or presence of woman? What is each man’s conclusion about her nature?
Wyatt presents himself, above all, as a man who has failed in his attempts at conquest. He evokes our sympathy by making himself look foolish for trying to capture something-woman that simply cannot be captured (line 8: “in a nett I seke to hold the wynde”). He also evokes our sympathy by showing us the intense state of conflict he is in. Although he insists in line 2 that “as for me, helas, I may no more,” he admits in lines 5 and 6 that although he has given up the physical act of pursuit, he still cannot keep his mind off it. Wyatt tries the chase once more in lines 6 and 7; as the “Diere” continues to flee, he again follows her, but meanwhile he is “faynting” or, according to the archaic definition, losing confidence and strength. In line 7 he finally decides to “leve of” the “Diere.” Wyatt here shows a feeling of camaraderie with the male population; one of his main purposes is to warn men against falling into
a similar kind of “woman trap.” He says to his fellow men, in effect, “We’re all in this together. I’ve tried my damndest to understand woman, but I can’t. Don’t waste your time because you may end up looking as foolish as me.” At the same time, Wyatt’s lamentation serves to convince him that the chase is indeed futile.
Whereas Wyatt spends much of his poem dis cussing his own feelings about the hunt, Spenser concentrates more on the woman’s actions and feelings. Thus, we must infer Spenser’s feelings through his treatment of the hunt. Spenser is not as accepting as Wyatt, for while Wyatt eventually concedes that he simply cannot capture woman, Spenser seems to feel that like “panting hounds beguiled of their prey,” he has been cheated out of his rightful due-woman. Also, Spenser, though admitting the chase has made him weary, does not suffer the loss of confidence that Wyatt does. The fact that his “deare” indeed returns gives him a feeling of control, however false it may be. The woman’s subsequent “fearelessnesse” seems to surprise Spenser, because apparently he considers himself someone to be feared.
Having examined both Wyatt’s and Spenser’s conceptions of the hunt and of themselves as hunters, we see clearly the way in which each poet misunderstands woman. For Wyatt, it is perhaps a more complete lack of understanding than a misunderstanding. Wyatt simply accepts de feat. He concludes that he may no more under stand the nature of woman than he may “seke to hold the wynde” (line 8). Since he does not understand woman, he deems her nature to be that of an animal, living on instinct, fleeing like a frightened deer at signs of danger. Because of this she cannot be blamed for anything Wyatt might construe as a transgression against him. Woman, like the deer, cannot calculate her actions like “rational” man, so she cannot willfully hurt others. If anyone does get hurt, it is the man’s fault forfailing to see the sign in “letters plain” that she
is “wylde for to hold though [she] seem tame” (line 14). If woman seems deceptive, at least she reveals her deceptiveness-perhaps as a test to man to see if he will believe it. In the end, Wyatt confers little judgment upon woman. She is neither good nor evil. Instead, she lives guided by instinct, in a world apart from men, and she can not be understood.
While Wyatt’s “Diere” flees because she is mysterious and wild, Spenser’s “deare” does so be cause she is calculating and fickle. Spenser’s woman is certainly more active, more real than Wyatt’s. In Rewriting the Renaissance, Ferguson says that “Spenser … was genuinely revisionary in his treatment of Petrarchan and Platonic traditions that marginalized women by objectifying them.” William Nelton, in The Poetry of Edmund Spenser, explains that “he is in love, not with an intangible Petrarchan lady, but with a young woman of wit and will.” Since Spenser’s woman is more human, she is held accountable for her actions and feelings, unlike Wyatt’s creature who acts on instinct only. The “deare” in Spenser does not merely flee, as in Wyatt’s poem; she escapes, as if knowing there is something from which to escape.
Spenser’s woman is active in other respects. She keeps the hunt under subtle control, returning only when she feels it is safe (i.e., line 6, “When I all weary had the chace forsooke”). At the same time, she remains fickle. Line 8, “Thinking to quench her thirst at the next brooke,” implies not only a careless whim to return to the scene but also a careful avoidance of getting too close to Wyatt. The woman performs other active tasks. She not only sees but “beholds” the speaker. She then decides to remain within his domain, and she does not merely remain there but “bides,” archaically defined as waiting with confidence and defiance. Perhaps Spenser calls our attention to these “fearelesse” qualities because they surprise him. He expects the “deare” to be fearful because he considers himself a formidable adversary.
Spenser’s error in judgment about woman is that, after establishing her as an active, calculating being, he assumes that later on she wholly submits herself to him and that he has thus truly “wonne” her. The question we then must as is: How is it that this woman, who throughout the poem’s first half manages to successfully elude Spenser and maintain control of the hunt, is now turned into a weak and powerless creature who has no choice but to be conquered by man?
The answer is that this cannot be true. Spenser’s woman must only be acting the part of the “contented captive.” From Spenser’s viewpoint, the woman is fearless only until he seizes her, at which point she begins “halfe trembling” in fear. Spenser then binds her “with her owne goodwill” (line 12), as if this were what she wanted all along. Spenser expresses some understandable puzzlement at all this. He says it is strange “to see a beast so wyld” become so tame, even as she is “beguyld” of her freewill (line 14). Actually, Spenser’s woman gets exactly what she wants. She waits until her man is despondent, makes a timid reentrance, and allows herself to be captured. She thus provides a needed ego-boost to the man. The “deare,” in this light, cannot be seen as having been deceived. She has played the game well and has decided that now is the time to end it.
No doubt if Spenser’s “deare” had never returned, he might have come eventually to a similar conclusion as Wyatt. The fact remains, however, that since Wyatt does not make a persistent effort at understanding woman, he does not make the error of so gravely misunderstanding her. Spenser, on the other hand, presents woman as much more than a benign deer, yet he ultimately misinterprets her actions and feelings.
Baldi, Sergio. Sir Thomas Wyatt. London: Longmans, Green
& Co., 1961.
Ferguson, Margaret, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers, eds. Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Differences in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Nelson, William. The Poetry of Edmund Spenser. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963