Thomas Wyatt: The Heart's Forest, By Susan Brigden

The man who could never rest

'They flee from me that sometime did me seek/ with naked foot stalking in my chamber," wrote Sir Thomas Wyatt. As Susan Brigden points out, exactly who "they" were, the false friends who were once "gentle, tame and meek" and who now "range/busily seeking with a continual change", is a key question. "They" were sometimes women – Wyatt was an admired love poet – but there were others who "put themselves in danger/to take bread at my hands". The danger was very real at the court of Henry VIII.

Wyatt's riddling poems and translations broke new ground in English: he introduced, as Brigden says, "the sonnet, the epigram, the Horatian verse epistle" and experimented brilliantly with ottava and terza rima. However, those readers seeking the biography of a poet may come away, not disappointed exactly, but a little confused.

Wyatt's life was eventful; close to the king, he narrowly escaped the block on two occasions. He was an opportunist, a coat-turner and "a carpetbagger" who profited from the dissolution of the monasteries and abandoned the cause of Catherine of Aragon, however reluctantly, for the much sexier Anne Boleyn, then nearly perished with her faction. He was an associate of Thomas Cromwell but again managed to slither away when disaster struck. These pressures may account for the knotty self-questioning and paranoia of his poems. Yet he also spent much of his life abroad on diplomatic missions, and it is this aspect of his life that Brigden foregrounds.

Brigden vividly paints the fascination and horror felt in Europe at England's brutish king and his break with Rome. It suited Henry for Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Francis I of France to be at odds, making him more influential as a power-broker; he also, for obvious reasons, bitterly opposed the Pope. Wyatt's thankless task was to swivel and manoeuvre at Charles's court, all the time at risk of Henry's rages.

Brigden is upfront about the impossibility of reconstructing Wyatt's character at this distance: "Wyatt was, and remains, elusive." Why did he break with his wife? We don't know. His relationship with his mistress, Elizabeth Darrell, is equally opaque. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, another poetic innovator, wrote a 38-line epitaph, one line for each year of Wyatt's life, which begins: "Wyatt resteth here, that quick could never rest." Yet of their friendship we get only glimpses: "In Calais, did Wyatt and Surrey sing of arms and the man? ... perhaps it was Surrey's 'pastime and disport' to read and rhyme with Wyatt … At court, they may often have met …" Or not.

In the acknowledgements, Brigden says she "quailed" at the prospect of writing about Wyatt's poetry. It is generously quoted but not examined in depth; Brigden seems much more interested in his life as a Tudor ambassador. Ultimately, Wyatt's "heart's forest" remains unpenetrated.