Whoso List to Hunt

'Whoso List to Hunt' (1530s) was one of the first sonnets to be written in English. Its content can be considered the kind of scandal that would fill newspapers, and the author was a prisoner, a poet, a knight and the King's love rival! Here we will look closely at Sir Thomas Wyatt's famous poem, its theme and context.

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Table of contents

    'Whoso List to Hunt': summary

    Sir Thomas Wyatt's 'Whoso List to Hunt' is a Petrarchan sonnet, widely believed to be one of the first written in English. The Petrarchan sonnet predates the more famous Elizabethan sonnet, popularised by William Shakespeare. As typical of most traditional sonnets 'Whoso List to Hunt' is essentially a love poem. The poem speaks of a hunt for a deer which is unsuccessful. The hunt mentioned in the poem is an extended metaphor for the speaker's pursuit of romantic desire.

    Petrarchan sonnet is a poem made up of 14 lines split into two stanzas. An octave (8 lines) with a rhyme scheme ABBAABBA and a sestet (6lines) with a rhyme scheme CDECDE.

    Extended metaphor is a single metaphor that runs throughout a poem. It is extended over multiple lines or stanzas in a poem.

    At the beginning of the poem, the speaker introduces the hunt as a desperate affair where they have found little success. The speaker talks of being "wearied' by the "vain travails". This suggests that they are tired of the pointless effort they have made. The speaker is so wearied that they find themselves at the back of the hunt. Despite the speaker's weariness, they cannot tear themselves away from the deer they are hunting.

    Whoso List To Hunt, a deer in a forest, StudySmarterFig. 1 - In the poem, the speaker is hunting a deer, a metaphor for the speaker's romantic pursuit.

    The speaker continues to talk about how catching their prey is as difficult as catching the wind in a net. They warn others that if they tried to catch the deer they would also find little success. In the final sestet, the reader is informed of a warning on the deer's neck. Written in diamonds are the words "do not touch me, for I belong to Caesar".

    Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am," - The warning written around the deer's neck- Line 13

    'Whoso List to Hunt' is heavily inspired by 'Sonnet 190' (1530s) by Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch's poem is also about a love unrequited. Wyatt's poem focuses on the emotional and physical drain the pursuit has on the speaker. The poem's tone is exasperated and desperate. In Wyatt's poem the speaker mentions that whoever wishes to hunt the hind would 'spend his time in vain'. Reflecting the speaker's own failed attempt in 'the hunt'. In Petrach's sonnet the speaker is more content to see the woman as a dream vision rather than an object of desire..

    'Whoso List to Hunt': Sir Thomas Wyatt biography

    Sir Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503 in Kent, England. He was an English poet known for introducing the sonnet into English literature. Wyatt was educated at Cambridge and as an adult became a member of the court of King Henry VIII. He was popular in court both for his skills with language and music, but also for his attractiveness.

    Sir Thomas Wyatt was closely associated with the Boleyn family. It was rumoured that he had an affair with Anne Boleyn. This rumour proved dangerous as later Henry VIII had a desire to marry Anne Boleyn. It is the rumoured affair that likely caused Wyatt to be imprisoned in 1536. Strangely enough, Thomas Wyatt was knighted a year later. He was then sent out on diplomatic missions abroad. This could have been to keep Wyatt from Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas Wyatt died in October 1542 of hyperthermia.

    Whoso List to Hunt': poem

    Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,But as for me, hélas, I may no more.The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,I am of them that farthest cometh behind.Yet may I by no means my wearied mindDraw from the deer, but as she fleeth aforeFainting 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 plainThere is written, her fair neck round about:Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

    'Whoso List to Hunt': analysis and themes

    Now we will analyse the main themes of the sonnet.

    Violent pursuit of love

    The poem's major theme is love, particularly unrequited love. Despite its theme, it is not a romantic poem. The poem is an extended metaphor to describe the speaker's relation as an unsuccessful hunt. The speaker often refers to their hunt being in vain. The deer they are pursuing seemingly cannot be caught.

    This metaphor equates love with violence, the deer representing the object of the speaker's desire. The metaphor could be seen as problematic or even threatening, presenting the speaker as hunting a woman they wish to woo. Blurring the lines between love and violence. The speaker is desperate to entrap the deer and the prey has little say in this.

    The speaker is one of many hunters after the deer. These fellow hunters could be interpreted as the speaker's love rivals. Of which the speaker has found themselves behind in the pursuit. In the poem, the speaker is exhausted by their fruitless chase of the deer. The speaker's dedication has them physically and mentally worn out. Their obsession is the cause of their anguish.

    Gender roles

    In the first octave, the poem appears to reinforce traditional gender roles. The speaker is a man engaging in a hunt. This male is in pursuit of a woman they desire. Although the woman in question does not wish for their attention. This gives the impression that the woman is something that can be possessed, a trophy for the speaker.

    The pursued woman however does not wish to be caught. This can be seen as a rejection of the speaker's idea of love. Where it is up to the man to capture the woman. The deer refuses the speaker or hunter's wishes. In the final lines the deer's neck warns that though they seem tame, they are wild.

    Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am, And wild for to hold, though I seem tame." -The full warning on the neck of the deer.

    However, there are other men hunting the deer. The warning refers Caesar, a famous emperor. This could be suggestive that a more powerful hunter may already possess her. Which would render the woman powerless. The reference to Caesar could possibly be an allusion to Henry VIII.

    The poem appears to go back and forth in its representation of gender roles. First, there is the familiar trope of a man pursuing a woman. This is followed by the woman showing resistance to the idea. Only for her to seem possessed by a powerful man at the end of the poem.

    'Whoso List to Hunt': context

    Francesco Petrach was an Italian poet. He was one of the first poets (post-classical) to write in his own language, as opposed to Latin or Greek. Petrarch turned the sonnet from a bawdy song into a more literary form. Sir Thomas Wyatt's 'Whoso List to Hunt' is an early example of a sonnet written in English.

    Wyatt's poem is greatly inspired by Petrarch's 'Sonnet 190'. Both poems speak of unrequited love. In Petrarch's sonnet, there is a dream-like image of a deer wearing a necklace. 'Whoso List to Hunt' concentrates more on the hunt, and its draining effects. While it may seem strange today that poets would imitate each other, it was quite common in Wyatt's time.

    The poem was written at the time of the English Reformation. When Henry VIII broke away from the catholic church so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas Wyatt was close to Henry's court and even closer to Anne Boleyn. The two were widely suspected of having an affair and some elements of the poem could be seen as a reference to their relationship.

    The speaker of the poem is dejected and exhausted in their pursuit of love. This suggests that the woman he loves is unavailable to him. Which the potential queen certainly would be. There is an allusion to Caesar in the final lines. Caesar, like Henry, is a powerful man to whom the woman in the poem claims to belong.

    Whoso List to Hunt, an illustration of King Henry VIII, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Henry VIII, a potential love rival for Wyatt?

    'Whoso List to Hunt': literary devices

    Here we will look at some of the literary devices used by Thomas Wyatt, looking at rhyme, meter and the poem's form


    The poem is divided into one octave and a sestet. All Petrarchan sonnets contain fourteen lines and are set the same way. The octave is used to introduce an idea, in this case, the hunt and the speaker's desperation. The sestet gives the reader a reason for the speaker's troubles, the deer carrying a warning. The sestet opens in the same way as the octave, the title of the poem. This could be to reassert to speaker's desperation.


    The poem is in iambic pentameter, which later became the most common meter used for sonnets in English. Wyatt most likely used this meter as it is used by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales (1392). The iambic pentameter is not strictly adhered to in the first line of the octave and sestet. This could be to represent the speaker's desperate exhaustion.

    An Octave is a stanza consisting of 8 lines. Can sometimes be known as an Octet.

    A Sestet is a stanza that is formed of six lines.

    Rhyme scheme

    Wyatt's poem uses a rhyme scheme common to the Petrarchan sonnet. For the octave, the rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA. This repetition is effective to reflect the speaker's obsessive nature. The sestet has a rhyme scheme of CDD CEE. All the rhyming words in the poem are simplistic, and a lot are monosyllabic. This could be due to it being one of the first examples of an English sonnet.

    Whoso List to Hunt - Key takeaways

    • 'Whoso List to Hunt' was one of the first sonnets to be written in English.
    • The poem was written in the early 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt.
    • 'Whoso List to Hunt' is a Petrarchan sonnet that uses an extended metaphor of a hunt to represent a romantic pursuit.
    • The poem 'Whoso List to Hunt' uses iambic pentameter and has a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA CDD CEE.
    • The main themes of the poem 'Whoso List to Hunt' are love and gender.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Whoso List to Hunt

    What is the tone of 'Whoso List to Hunt'?

    The tone of 'Whoso List to Hunt' is exasperated and desperate.

    When was 'Whoso List to Hunt' written?

    It was likely that 'Whoso List to Hunt' was written in the 16th century.

    What does the deer symbolise?

    The deer symbolises the object of the speaker's desire, a woman.

    What is the poem 'Whoso List to Hunt' about?

    The poem 'Whoso List to Hunt' is about the speaker's desperate pursuit of love.

    How is love presented in the poem?

    In the poem, love is presented as a hunt.

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    Team English Literature Teachers

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    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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