Whoso List to Hunt by Thomas Wyatt

uncertain date - probably either 1526-7 or 1533

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,

But as for me, helas, I may no more;

The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,

I am of them that furthest 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,

Sithens 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.'

observations: Noli me tangere - do not touch me - are the words of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene, supposedly also found on actual collars of Caesar’s animals.

The poem has a conceit, that the woman is a hind, and it is based on courtly convention, and on a poem by someone else (Petrarch). But it has a hard reality in it: it’s generally agreed to be about Anne Boleyn, so the Caesar is Henry VIII. When she was beheaded at the Tower, Wyatt was imprisoned there too and nearly lost his life exactly on suspicion of touching her.

Thomas Wyatt was part of Anne’s circle - a gossiping, poetry-writing, flirtatious group - and was probably in love with her at one time. The poems might be courtly and theoretical, but you can’t read this one and think that it was an exercise or a game: there is a grim eroticism about it, a depth of feeling. His most famous poem is They flee from me that some time did me seek, which contains these lines:

When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall. 
And she me caught in her arms long and small,  
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss, 
And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'

--which again sounds all too real.

Wyatt had an extraordinary life: a miserable marriage, a dangerous liaison (of unknown seriousness) with a future Queen. Maybe he did nothing but flirt with her – but it brought him to the Tower. He came close to execution twice in his life, he introduced the sonnet to England, he was an Ambassador, he was ordered by law to take back his adulterous wife, and he wrote sad serious poetry which sometimes seems so heartfelt and private that it is uncomfortable to read.

There are two excellent and very different recent books about his life – Nicola Shulman’s Graven with Diamonds is accessible and entertaining, while Susan Brigden’s Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest is scholarly, detailed and complete.

Links on the blog: Anne Boleyn has featured several times – click on the label below.

The deerhunt is from a Greek vase in the Louvre: the photo is © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons. The woman showing her shoulders is a picture by William Etty, found on The Athanaeum website.


  1. I like it, Moira, when you explore poetry on your blog. There's so much one can read into this. And I didn't know about Wyatt's life - that certainly adds perspective to the poem!

  2. Thanks Margot - I was nervous at first about doing poems, but I'm enjoying doing them, and the nice reactions I get. Wyatt is a fascinating character - if he was the hero of a novel you'd say 'well but no-one could actually have a life like that.'


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