My Lute, Awake! - Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Benjamin Gaines

Benjamin has his master's degree in literature and has taught writing in and out of academia.

'My Lute, Awake!' is a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt. It relates the thoughts of a scorned suitor, bitter at his rejection. Read about the content and subtext of this example of the darker side of courtly love.

Summary

This poem begins with the speaker addressing his lute, calling for it to awaken and join him in performing one last labor before they are done. That labor is to sing of his failed attempts to capture the heart of a woman he loves.

Portait of Sir Thomas Wyatt
Sir Thomas Wyatt

He goes on to speak of how cruelly his beloved has repelled his advances. The speaker repeats his claims that he has given up, and both he and his lute are done with this.

This heartbreak turns to accusation in the fourth stanza, where he begins to address his love directly, rather than his lute. He accuses the unnamed woman of being 'proud of the spoil' of hearts that she was won. 'Spoil,' in this case, meaning captured treasure or profits.

He goes on to warn her the day will come when she is no longer young and beautiful, and on that lonely day she may wish she'd accepted his love.

After that, he concludes his poem as he began, saying that both he and his lute are done.

Symbolism

The speaker's lute fills several functions in this poem. By addressing the lute first, the speaker avoids having to directly address the poem's real target (his unrequited love) until he is ready. This serves to hide his real intention: a last message to a woman who spurned him. By making his address to her a digression on a monologue to his instrument, the speaker diminishes her power and importance to him.

The lute is also an example of metonymy, the use of part of something, or an attribute of something, to represent the whole thing. Some common examples are terms like 'the crown' to refer to a monarch or 'the pen' to refer to the act of writing. In this case, the speaker's lute symbolizes his creative passions and skills. When he calls on his lute to awake, he is calling on all his creative faculties.

Likewise, when he tells his love that both he and his lute are done with her, he is saying that he is giving up on focusing his creative talents on wooing her. This claim is somewhat undercut by the fact that he continues reciting stanzas about her, despite ending each one with some variant of the claim 'I have done,' meaning 'I am done.'

The speaker uses a variety of metaphors to describe his situation. In the second stanza, he likens his chances of piercing her heart to the chances of being heard by someone without ears or etching a hard substance like marble with a soft substance like lead.

Statue of Cupid (Love) with his bow
Statue of Love/Cupid

The poet goes on to personify love itself as 'Love,' evoking images of cupid with his arrows. The speaker claims that his love is 'Proud of the spoil that thou hast got / Of simple hearts thorough Love's shot,' in effect collecting hearts like trophies with the aid of Love. He warns her, though, to 'Think not he hath his bow forgot.' Cupid still has his arrows, and they could strike her as they've struck the narrator.

The speaker's bitterness comes across even more vividly when he accuses her of making 'game on earnest pain,' in effect making sport of his suffering. He imagines his revenge, with her 'wethered and old,' realizing too late that her looks were 'beauty but lent.' Her looks are a temporary loan rather than a permanent feature. She will 'wish and want' in the same way that he has.

This resentment lies at the center of the poem's meaning. Over and over, the narrator insists that he is done with the unnamed woman who rejected him, and time and time again he has just one more thing to say to her. Between the accusations of cruelty and the images of her old age, the narrator still holds out hope that this last appeal will break down her resolve, and she will yield to his advances.

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