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Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43.1 (2001) 29-45

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Thomas Wyatt's Epistolary Satires:
Parody and the Limitations of Rhetorical Humanism

Jason Gleckman

Thomas Wyatt's writing regularly engages the tensions underlying early-sixteenth-century humanist rhetoric. While works such as his 1527 rendition of Plutarch's the Quyete of Mynde and his 1541 Defence on charges of treason tend to convey a humanist confidence in the persuasive power of language, his most haunting and famous poems portray language very differently: as a corrupt human creation unable to communicate the inner self to others and consequently helpless to establish human bonds or human community. This essay seeks to demonstrate, by focusing on Wyatt's three epistolary satires, how the mature poet strives to reconcile, through the creation of a more indirect and "parodic" mode of rhetorical persuasion, his pessimistic poetic vision with the more rationalistic and optimistic goals of Erasmian humanism.


Emphasizing the accomplishments of Renaissance humanists runs the risk of downplaying what could be called the "dark side" of humanism: a continuous recognition, on the part of the movement's own proponents, that one of humanism's greatest goals--the attainment of rhetorical eloquence--is not in itself praiseworthy. Both the classical and Christian rhetorical traditions from which Renaissance humanism springs evidence a similar concern. In Plato's Gorgias Socrates calls rhetoric a subspecies of flattery, an accusation that haunts rhetorical theory throughout antiquity and finds new vigor in the Christian tradition's depiction of Satan as the father of lies. From the perspective of the early-sixteenth-century humanists whose milieu is the focus of this essay, the nagging association of rhetoricians with flatterers was especially troubling. Since the humanist movement (under the able leadership of Erasmus and abetted by a masterful use of the printing press) was achieving its most widespread political, religious, and educational influence during this period, [End Page 29] there was much at stake in rooting out evil flatterers from the body politic and replacing them with their antitypes: trained humanist orators and counsellors.

Yet although much humanist spleen was vented in the early sixteenth century, as in other epochs, attacking the vice of flattery, the flatterer is notoriously difficult to capture or define. Despite the oft-repeated humanist truism (stressed even by that borderline humanist, Machiavelli) that flatterers are the curse of a commonwealth, humanist rhetoricians were no more capable than their classical or patristic predecessors at laying down guidelines to distinguish the speech of flatterers from that of honest men. The metaphor for flatterers employed by the humanist writer Thomas Elyot in The Boke Named the Governour ("wormes [that] do brede moste gladly in softe wode and swete" [172]) conveys concisely both the danger of the flatterer's poison, invisible to both eye and ear, and the consequent tendency of Renaissance writers to fall back upon adjectival, rather than substantive, descriptions of the type. 1 In fact, to Elyot, the flatterer's disguise is so impenetrable that he may be immune even to the most rigorous efforts of humanists to expose and shame him. As Elyot bluntly puts it:

Injurie apparaunt and with powar inforced, eyther may be with lyke powar resisted, or with wisdome eschued, or with en[t]reatie refrained. But where it is by craftie engynne imagined, subtilly prepared, covertly disembled, and disceytefully practysed, suerly no man may by strength withstande it, or by wisdome eskape it, or by any other maner or meane resiste or avoyde it. (186)

It should come as no surprise that Renaissance humanists found the issue of flatterers so vexing. After all, flatterers are rhetoricians themselves and can adopt the stances of selfless honesty and virtue as compellingly as any humanist can. It is inevitable that no humanist "performance of conviction" (the concept is Kenneth J. E. Graham's) can ever preclude the possibility of a superbly hollow imitation of the same. Flattery, as the ancients and Christian fathers suspected, is highly resistant to rhetorical attack, whether that rhetoric takes the form of intense proclamations...


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