‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt is one of the first sonnets of English literature. This poem is not about hunting a hind or female deer. Rather it’s about the difficulty to win the heart of the lady to whom the poet once gifted his heart. Whatsoever, rejection caused him so much pain, the words of the poem reflect a sense of coldness in the poet’s heart. Nothing left except for the lonely musing of a lovelorn poet. In this poem, one can get the idea of how a lover feels when he knows he has been dejected with utter hopelessness.
Explore Whoso List to Hunt
‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt is a sonnet that talks about a hind that is impossible to be captured. In the first section or octave, the poet refers to his mental state after following the hind before. It was a fruitless venture that he undertook. Neither he nor others can catch it. The poet became so exhausted that he says it was like catching air with a net. It soon becomes evident the deer is a woman and the speaker: one of her suitors. However, in the sestet, the poet provides the reason. Here, he says why the hind can’t be caught. As it belongs to Caesar, a likely reference to Henry VIII and already his property. So, those who are trying to catch it, can’t own the creature.
‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt was during the Renaissance period. For this reason, the language of the poem seems archaic to modern readers. However, the meaning of the title, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ is simple enough to get the idea of the poem. Here, “Whoso” means whoever, and “list” means wish or contend. So, the title says, “whoever wishes or contends to hunt”. Whatsoever, the full title of the poem is the first line itself. Hence, the second part of the first line completes the sense of the first half. Collectively the sentence is, “Whoever wishes to hunt” the poet knows where the hind is.
Structure and Form
‘Whoso List to Hunt’ is a fourteen-line sonnet in the form popularized by the Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch. This form usually follows a rhyming pattern of ABBAABBA CDECDE. It is common within Petrarchan, or Italian sonnets, to discover that the writer has chosen to alter the last six lines or sestet. In the case of ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, Wyatt has alternated the last six lines so that they rhyme in a pattern of CDDCEE.
Although there is this obvious change to the pattern, the general structure conforms to the Petrarchan model. The poem can be divided into one set of eight lines or octave, and as mentioned previously, one concluding set of six lines, or sestet. In addition to the number, and rhyme scheme, of the lines, the poet has come quite close to sticking to the traditional metrical pattern of iambic pentameter.
Moreover, there is a connection between the two sections of the poem. It will be clear after reading the poem by keeping the division in mind. Moreover, the rhyme scheme of the octave is ABBABBA. The sestain contains the CDDCEE rhyme scheme. So the last two lines of the poem form a rhyming couplet. And the overall poem consists of a closed rhyming pattern.
In a Petrarchan sonnet, the lines are usually structured in iambic pentameter. This means that there are five beats per line, and each one is composed of an unstressed and stressed syllable, known as an iamb. It is common within Wyatt’s work to find moments in which patterns are disregarded. One type of divergent moment which appears many times throughout the text is a trochee. This word is used to refer to moments in which the stressed syllable is first and the unstressed second.
Likewise, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt is written in iambic pentameter. However, there are some variations. For reference, the sixth, seventh, and eighth lines of the poem begin with a trochaic foot. The last line is one syllable short. Hence, the last foot of this line is catalectic.
‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt begins with a metaphor. Here, the poet compares hunting to wooing a lady. Moreover, “hind” is an extended metaphor for a lady. In the third line, the poet uses a personification. And, in this line, “so sore” contains an alliteration. Thereafter, in “wearied mind” there is a use of personal metaphor. The poet also uses consonance in the neighboring words, “fleeth afore” and “Fainting”. Again, the poet uses a metaphor in the line, “Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind”. This line contains irony too. However, here the poet compares the pursuit of catching the wind. Apart from that, there is synecdoche in the usage of the word “diamonds”. Here, Wyatt refers to the shining letters engraved on the hind’s neck. In the last line of the poem, there is an antithesis.
‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt contains several themes. The dominant theme of the poem is the rejection of love. However, the poet also presents themes such as appearance vs reality, transience, cruelty, apathy, and infatuation. Whatsoever, the poet is one of those who got a rejection on their face. But, the poet tried to get the love of the lady somehow. For this reason, he has now lost hope from the word love. And, those who still linger on that way, are wasting not only theirs but also the poet’s time by asking the way from him. Moreover, the hind is, in reality, entitled to someone from whom it is next to impossible to claim it. Though it seems “wild”, it’s tamed by someone else. In this way, the poet projects the theme of appearance vs reality.
Analysis of Whoso List to Hunt
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
Upon beginning this poem, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt, a contemporary reader will encounter some words that have fallen out of use. The first of these is “Whoso.” It refers to “anyone” or “whoever.” The speaker is offering anyone listening to a tip. He knows the location of a “hind,” or female deer. This speaker is an avid hunter and for some reason, as yet unknown, he willing to give up the location of a potential kill to the listener, if they “list to hunt,” or want to go hunting. The speaker explains in the next line that although he wants to hunt, he “may no more.” Something is stopping him.
Apart from that, there is a metaphor of the hind that presents the lady without any emotions or feelings for the poet at the very beginning. The first two lines act as a warning to those who are chasing after that lady hopefully. The poet knows the location of the hind. Once, he was also among them who were after that chimeric creature. After understanding the reality of the creature, he stopped being trapped in her looks and emotionless gestures. Hence, the poet says, “I may no more.” It seems like the poet is saying he has got his punishment for following an illusion. And, it should be better if nobody goes in that direction the poet went.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Thereafter, in ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, Sir Thomas Wyatt, at the beginning of the third line, gives the reader a bit more detail as to what is stopping the speaker. He sees the hunt of this particular “hind” to be a “vain travail.” It is a task which will never be accomplished, there is no point in even attempting to hunt her. He knows this to be the truth from experience.
The hunt has “wearied [him] so sore.” He has done his best in the past to complete this particular hunt but is “of them that farthest cometh behind.” No matter how hard he tries he is in the group of people who come last. The “group” to which he refers is a simple reference to the tradition of hunting among friends and colleagues.
It is at this point in the poem that a reader might begin to expect that the poem is not referencing a deer, but rather a woman. There is someone he has been seeking affection from for a long period, without success. It is important to note how the speaker sees this woman. She is nothing more to him than a problematic prize to be won, unusually difficult in this particular case, but he knows it must be possible.
However, the speaker refers to his pursuit as a “vain travail”. It means that the labors of the poet were fruitless. Due to undertaking such an arduous journey, he has become exhausted and hopeless as well. His body isn’t wearied but his mind is. Thereafter, the poet refers to him as someone who lingers far back in a group. It’s a reference to one’s self-knowledge that makes one more cautious hence slow-going. After getting such a shock, the poet has become more calculative in his efforts in contrast to an early beginner.
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,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
In the last four lines of the octave of ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, although the speaker is offering up the deer or woman to someone else, he is unable to stop thinking about her. His “wearied mind” is trapped in endless circles around her. He cannot “Draw from the deer” when all he sees is her fleeing “afore” him. No matter how hard he tries he continues to “follow” along behind her. This is emphasized by his use of the word “Fainting.” So strong is her influence over him that he is unable to stay conscious.
It is clear that the hunt has become something of an obsession and that his choice to give the woman up is in an attempt to free himself from it. The last lines spell out his determination to free himself. He will “leave off” and attempting to catch the woman. It is like seeking to “hold the wind” in one’s “net,” an impossible task.
To sum up, when the speaker pursued that illusory deer, it fled away. The faster he chased the further the distance grew in between them. At last, it left such an impression on the poet’s mind, that he fears to take such a step in the future. The poet metaphorically says it was like catching the wind with a net. Here, the wind refers to the frolicking nature of the lady and net is no doubt the poet’s desire to have the lady in his life.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
The sestet of ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt, begins with an echo of the opening line. He speaks to him “Who” may “list her hunt.” The speaker wants to tell this man that he will never be successful, he too will soon understand the hunting of this “hind” to be an impossible task. The new suitor will “spend his time in vain.” Moreover, in these two lines, the tone of the speaker becomes stern and direct. It’s passionless and cold. The voice of the poetic persona reflects a sense of realization that was harsh to digest at first.
However, in this section, Wyatt says those who are trying to go after the lady and asking for his help, are wasting their time. No matter how much information the poet has about the lady, it will be useless for them. The poet exemplifies the reason for saying so in the next few lines of the poem.
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.
Here, in ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, Sir Thomas Wyatt describes the “letters” which are around the woman’s neck. These “plain” letters spell out words with “diamonds.” It is unclear at this point what the words are, but they are there for everyone to see in glittering, expensive detail. They are a tag of sorts for this person. In the final lines, the speaker reveals what is written on the woman’s neck. It says, “Noli me tangere,” which is Latin for, “Do not touch me.” This is a reference to a passage from the Bible in which Jesus, in John 20:17, says, “touch me not” after rising from the dead. It also speaks to the current owner of the woman, Caesar.
The deer cannot be caught due to the sheer power of Caesar’s ownership over her. She is “wild for to hold,” or hard to hold onto, and perhaps dangerous, even if she seems to be “tame.” It has been offered by historians that it is not Caesar to whom the speaker refers, but Henry VIII, the king of England during this period.
In this way, the speaker provides the reason for not being able to win the lady’s heart. The letters of the inscription around the hind’s neck have a shining quality that refers to the truth of the writing. The reference to the “diamonds” in this section makes it clear how precious the deer is. However, on her neck, it is written, “Noli me tangere”. It means, “touch-me-not”. So, it’s sacred too. Apart from that, the deer belongs to the Roman emperor, Caesar. Hence, it’s not an ordinary deer that can be chased by such a lowly person like the poet himself. Lastly, the poet creates a contrast. Here, the poet says not to trust the creature’s look as it seems tame but, in reality, it’s a wild one. One can see her and applaud her beauty but can’t tame her with his desirous eyes.
‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt, as it is said before, is one of the best Petrarchan sonnets. Here, the poet imitates Petrarch’s Sonnet 190. One can find the reference to a hind in Petrarch’s sonnet too. However, Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote this sonnet around 1530-1540. That’s why, it’s one of the early sonnets written in English that influenced the latter-day writers such as William Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and others. Whatsoever, the main motif of the poem is a lover’s dejection in love. It became one of the recurring themes in other poet’s work. Moreover, one can find here, an allusion to the rumored love affair between Sir Thomas Wyatt and Queen Anne Boleyn. Apart from that, the reference to Caesar might be a reference to King Henry VIII and his second wife was Anne Boleyn.
Like ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the following poems also present similar themes.
- Blame not my Lute! by Sir Thomas Wyatt – Like I Find no Peace and They Flee from Me, here Wyatt similarly talks about a lover’s dejection in love.
- Dejection: An Ode by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – It’s about the decline of poetic imagination and mental pain. This poem is one of the best Samuel Taylor Coleridge poems.
- Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples by Percy Bysshe Shelley – In this one of the best Percy Bysshe Shelley poems, the speaker describes the feelings of alienation.
- The Unfortunate Lover by Andrew Marvell – It’s about the misfortunes a lover faced throughout his life.