Short Books, £20, 378pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Graven With Diamonds, By Nicola Shulman

When I first began to read poetry seriously at school, "practical criticism" still held sway. This approach promoted the idea of an unmediated dialogue between the reader and the text – a sort of naked encounter session, free from the deceiving clothes of context. And it so happened that one of the poems stripped from its history that I enjoyed most delivered the electrifying delight of déshabillé. A masterpiece of petulant erotic longing (hence, perhaps, its allure for teenage readers), this lyric by Sir Thomas Wyatt begins "They flee from me that sometime did me seek". It goes on to recall a rejected lover's tryst with a fickle lady who "When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall/ And she caught me in her arms long and small/ Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,/ And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'"

Not only yearning youngsters will fall for Wyatt (1503-1542) in this mood. Many of his 170-odd authenticated poems (the attribution wars still rumble) dance us through the minefield – sexual, political and religious – of Henry VIII's court with an elusive melancholy charm that never drops the veil of mystery. Like the mocking minxes it evokes, who themselves slip between stock poetic silhouettes and warm-blooded womanhood, Wyatt's poetry teases, seduces, succumbs, changes its mind - and often flees. For a novice reader denied the right even to ask about the world of history and biography behind this soft-focus screen of desire and danger, the exposure proved frustrating on several levels.

Now Nicola Shulman has written the book that I craved then. Although modern editors aplenty have pored over Wyatt's work, she properly maintains that this scholarly searchlight tends to blind lay readers and obscure the verse, leaving "a legacy of under-appreciation". No longer: Graven with Diamonds is one of the most persuasive and pleasurable accounts of English Renaissance poetry to appear from a general publisher in years. Moreover, as a finely-shaded portrait of the writer as a man of power "whose whole creative life was spent in the intertidal strand where realpolitik and poetry mingle", it braids text and context into an enriching feedback loop that proves the sheer impracticality of "practical criticism".

Shulman's subtitle – "the many lives of Thomas Wyatt: courtier, poet, assassin, spy – misleadingly suggests a cloak-and-codpiece potboiler for fans of TV's The Tudors. Yet she chooses targets and themes with something of her subject's high-born hauteur. Shulman fixes a shrewd and illuminating gaze on the gnomic love lyrics that Wyatt wrote for narrow circulation at Henry's court in the 1520s and 1530s, a "closed, incestuous coterie" that would "rarely have exceeded 100 key courtiers". Wyatt's poems saw print only posthumously, in 1557. Subtle and ingenious, this study presents them as form of elite samizdat, or even as "the Facebook of the Tudor court"; close-packed bomblets of innuendo and insinuation designed for a febrile time and place when "poetry was the hot vehicle for gossip and rumour".

With unflagging flair, wit and tenacity, she follows the threads of romantic intrigue, factional conspiracy and theological dispute in Henry's households as he swapped wives, changed directions and broke with Rome. Rather grandly, Shulman mostly overlooks Wyatt's pastoral satires and Penitential Psalms. Then action-packed final chapters trace Wyatt's thrilling but hapless (a favourite word of his) missions as "an early-modern James Bond" to the French king Francis I and the emperor Charles V. English diplomacy strove to prevent the major powers of Europe from ganging up on the heretic-friendly wife-slaughterer over the Channel.

Was Wyatt a lover of Anne Boleyn, as long-standing legend has it? His imprisonment in the Tower in 1536, just as the Queen met her fate, hints as much. His first jail spell – the second came in 1541, when his patron Thomas Cromwell fell – certainly drew some great, anguished verse ("These bloody days have broken my heart./ My lust, my youth did them depart.") Shulman argues cogently that Wyatt betrayed the Boleyns, and was banged up so that he might rat at leisure on the clan. Hence the gnawing guilt.

As for their liaison, we still don't know everything. But her account fits in with the forensic acuity of this book as a whole. Steered by the conventions of courtly love, Wyatt's lyrics – and the sophisticated "pastime" they fed – both sanctioned and controlled adulterous desires. The rituals permitted the expression of a hands-off admiration for a married lady – but the licensed formula might itself prove a bluff that hid genuine passion. This courtly sport "was played at a high pitch of suggestiveness, balanced on a blade between earnest and game". To keep one's head (in every sense), ambiguous words had to slip and slide, revealing while concealing, forever on the move. The "single folded piece of paper" bearing a Wyatt verse that rippled through the court both told its truth and kept its counsel. As Shulman shows with quite spectacular intelligence, its meaning was "mutating with the mutability of the times".

Remarkably, Wyatt outlived both the failure of his Continental quest to liquidate the Papists' leader, Cardinal Pole, and the execution of Cromwell. It seems, argues Shulman, that the pretty, doomed Catherine Howard saved him before Henry's mad wrath axed her too. He died of a fever at Sherborne, not far from the home of his ever-patient mistress (and mother of his son), Besse Darrell. How well did the poetry endure? Very much the in-the-know châtelaine among plodding bourgeois critics, Shulman airily claims that the "private semaphore" of Wyatt's genius proved "incompatible with print culture". Up to a point, milady. This book gives it new life.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis