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Graven With Diamonds by Nicola Shulman

Graven With Diamonds

  • Ebook $14.99

    Feb 05, 2013

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“Penetrating and witty . . . Justly acclaimed in Britain, it now appears here . . . Graven With Diamonds provides a briskly intelligent, sometimes maverick interpretation of the poet’s verse and a revelatory look at the subtle craft of poetry in furthering the birth of the modern state.” — Barnes and Noble Review

A “refreshing counterpoint to typical books on Tudor politics and religion.” — Winnipeg Free Press

“A distinguished courtier, probable lover of Anne Boleyn, and the first English poet to write a sonnet, Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) was well positioned to make a name in belles lettres, as this lively biography attests.  . . . Shulman deftly interweaves close readings of Wyatt’s poems through her reconstruction of Henry VIII’s court, showing how they illuminated dalliances and intrigues and even could be read as a commentary on the Reformation after Henry severed ties with Rome. Shulman’s vivacious prose complements her scholarship. . . . Her delightful book puts polish to a potentially dusty era.”  Publishers Weekly

“Concerned with a nexus of history and literature, Shulman’s sophistication will inveigle readers of both genres.” Booklist

“A nuanced look at the poetry and life of Thomas Wyatt. Along with just about everyone else in the court of Henry VIII, Wyatt, who brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England, had to master the intricacies of the survival dance in that era—or kneel before the chopping block. . . . Readers of Hilary Mantel’s two novels about Thomas Cromwell will enjoy seeing him in a different context. Shulman also reveals her own considerable lyrical chops. . . . A gracefully written, thoroughly researched story of an agile and articulate survivor.” Kirkus Reviews

“A fluid, poised, quick-witted dance through the poetic and political career of one of the most elusive, glittering figures of Tudor England.” – Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall

“Masterly… the best work of history this year” — AN Wilson, Evening Standard

“A brilliant example of literary rehabilitation… A thrilling book that manages to be both scholarly and wonderfully readable” —  Kathryn Hughes, Mail on Sunday

“Beautifully intelligent and lucid” — John Lanchester, New Statesman

 ”Glitteringly brilliant… Everyone who cares anything for poetry should read this vivid, dynamic and exhilarating account of how and why words matter.” – Times Literary Supplement

“Both sparkling and scholarly. Nothing I’ve ever read about the court of Henry VIII has made it so vivid… A gem.” — Cressida Connolly, Spectator

“Sharp, dangerous and exhilarating” — Geordie Greig, Evening Standard

“Poised, lucid, often arresting and frequently witty” — John Guy, Sunday Times

“Really exciting: a literary thriller… I’m already dreading finishing it.” — Rachel Cooke, Independent 

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Nicola Shulman
Author of
Graven with Diamonds
The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt
Poet, Lover, Statesman, and Spy in the Court of Henry VIII
Steerforth Press  •  Publication Date 2/5/2013   •  Distributed by Random House
What made you decide to write about Thomas Wyatt?
A: It goes back a very long time, to when I was at Oxford University. We were taught Wyatt as part of the English syllabus and I was completely bewildered by him.  The lyric poems seemed glassy and impenetrable to me. I tore out my hair trying to get a purchase on their slippery sides. But they lodged in my mind and fragments of them kept trickling up to the surface, like old sand in your suitcase. Then one day, some years later, I was on a train and a line came to me:
Nor I cannot the thing I mean
Myself express
This was the moment of revelation, when I realized that the poems were a place for secrets.  Secrets abounded in Henry’s reign. He was the first King to pass a law making speech punishable by death. I thought, if Henry VIII was a type of Tudor Stalin, was it possible that Wyatt was a Mandelstam, an Akhmatova?  Were these poems, which seemed so slight, in fact the means of expressing the inexpressible?  Was this a way of making silence speak?
The concept seemed to me so interesting that I assumed a book on the subject would soon emerge for me to read. And I waited. But none did; and after I’d waited about twenty years, I decided to do it myself.  And it turned out I was right about Wyatt.
Q: Sir Thomas Wyatt isn’t as well – known in North America as he is in Britain.  Can you tell us a little about his career?
A: He was the handsome, brilliant, witty son of Sir Henry Wyatt, himself an impressively talented official, an accountant who organized the coffers of Henry VII and then of Henry VIII. Sir Henry’s hard graft made him a rich and influential court functionary; Wyatt himself was brought up at court and became a great favorite with Henry VIII and later with his first minister, Thomas Cromwell. He formed a relationship with Anne Boleyn before the King took a fancy to her, which caused him a good deal of trouble when the King’s interest became apparent, and nearly got him killed.   In 1536, when Anne was arrested and executed along with her five ‘lovers’ he was also put in the tower; and everyone expected him to be executed along with her. I argue that, contrary to what has often been thought, he bought his life in return for helping Cromwell with his prosecution of Anne and her lovers. Afterwards he became one of Cromwell’s associates, and perhaps the nearest thing to a darling, or protégé, in the stable of that ruthless man. In the 1530s, Henry’s court became a terrifying place, rife with political, dynastic and religious factions, where courtiers scrambled to rise by denouncing one another to an increasingly suspicious and paranoid king. Ambitious men like Wyatt lived in a state of permanent anxiety, helplessness and terror; and his poetry is one of the great expressions of what it is to live in fear.
As a poet, Wyatt is very important. His lyrics are some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, enduring love poetry ever written – indeed, this very Valentine’s day Seamus Heaney nominated a Wyatt poem as his favorite of all love poems. An astounding outcome, when you consider that Wyatt’s poems were never published during his lifetime and were not intended for any except an elite group in Henry’s inner court. Love poetry owes a lot to Wyatt: Wyatt was one of the first masters of our modern language. He was the first to use lyric poetry as a medium for complex ideas; he was the first Englishman to write a sonnet, and the first to articulate a concept of unconditional love. Many people have loved and been moved by his poems but until now, it has been very difficult to understand what they are really saying.  By putting them into the context of his life, I have been able to make their meanings appear.
Wyatt may not be so well known in the US as he is in the UK but, strangely enough, he has large numbers of descendants in the U.S. Two of his great-grandsons came to America in the early 17th century (one as colonial governor of Virginia) and the seed of one of them, the Rev. Hawte Wyatt, is now legion.
Q: What did you learn that you didn’t expect to?
A: A lot.   Because most history books don’t look at the early 16th century from the point of view of love or love poetry, I had imagined that these considerations were quite peripheral and figured small in people’s lives.  But, quite the reverse.  I discovered that contemporary ideas of love are critical to an understanding of Henry himself; also that the production and distribution of love poetry was a highly important activity at Henry’s court.  I discovered that the poetry and its historical context were mutually illuminating in the most dramatic way: the historical context reveals the poems’ otherwise invisible meanings; and the poetry gives us insights into the lives and concerns of Henry’s cohorts, women and courtiers which is unique and new. Poetry was the glamorous medium of the time, because it was the only acceptable way of negotiating sexual relations between men and women.  Anne Boleyn used it to capture the king; all the brightest courtiers tried their hand at it but, as Anne pronounced from her condemned cell,  “only Wyatt can do it”. So the less talented borrowed his poems for themselves and put them to use in all kinds of unexpected ways. They were used as a form of social networking, passed from person to person as a way of commenting on secret affairs – such as Henry’s affair with Anne and its horrible end, the sexual and political fickleness of the king, the divorce, the break with Rome, the impossible position of his subjects, always obliged to prove loyalty when the criterion for loyalty shifted continuously.
Q: What was Wyatt’s relationship with Anne Boleyn? Are the rumours about their affair true?
A: The rumours themselves are pretty spectacular and began to circulate in print, soon after his death: that Wyatt was sleeping with Anne and then went and told the King, with whom she was not sleeping, all about it. This astonishing story turned up all over Europe in various hair-raising versions, much to the embarrassment not just of the Wyatt family but also of Queen Elizabeth I and the Protestant church. I have looked at all its ramifications, and re-examined it as well in the light of the question: why Thomas Wyatt? When five men went to the block with Anne as her ‘lovers’, why would you need to make something up about another man?  There certainly was a relationship: How far it went and how far Thomas Wyatt went to cover it up and sanitize it is the subject of one of my chapters, looking at all the evidence and also looking again at the poetry. One has to be careful dealing with Wyatt’s poetry. It would be a mistake to read them as purely biographical cyphers; however, we can learn a great deal through Wyatt’s “Anne” poems, including some new ones I’ve identified which show Anne and Wyatt in a wholly new light as collaborators, working together in her campaign to win the king.
What else do you tell us about?

A: I tell you about the world of the early 16th century from the inside out: from the point of view of its language. I explain how people felt frightened of the power of language both in its secular and religious emanations.  The language was in a state of flux between Chaucer and Shakespeare; words were slippery, changing, and hard to pin down. People mistook one another’s meaning, sometimes negligently, often maliciously; Henry’s treason laws meant you could die for a casual remark and made questions of interpretation, inference and tone into matters of life and death. Wyatt was a great poetic genius, as I hope this book makes clear, who made a virtue of this evasive, fugitive language. He made it say the unsayable and he used it to save his life; but for most the business of saying what they meant was dangerous, difficult and burdensome.
Nor I cannot the thing I mean
Myself express
Graven with Diamonds introduces the reader to a cast of wordsmiths:  poets, priests, polemicists, foreign language teachers, lovers, many of them hilariously cantankerous, all competing to gain the firmest purchase on their treacherous language.
Q: You’re not an academic, but you’ve chosen to write a book on what some would call an academic subject.  How does that work?
A: My book is really not aimed at the academy, though I’m always delighted when academics enjoy it. It’s meant for the general reader, and I want it to engage, surprise and entertain as much as to educate. When I began to do the research I saw there was a great human drama locked in these poems and that they were the key to a whole new way of understanding that society; but I could find no books to explain that to somebody like me.  Academic writings about poetry of this period tend to be very dense, focused and technical, and assume a high level of prior knowledge on the part of the reader. My idea was to write a book that anyone could read. There are some advantages to not being an academic: you can start from the beginning, you can put the narrative first, you can put in all the delicious nuggets of information you’ve unearthed without worrying if they’re in someone else’s book. You can take a light tone. You can make jokes.

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