Hap, Robert Sheppard
The Knives Forks And Spoons Press, 2018 £6.50
Robert Sheppard has taken the fifteen sonnets Sir Thomas Wyatt ‘translated’ from Petrarch and framed them with sonnets of his own. ‘Inside the poem is another poem; inside that another.’ That’s the first line of the opening poem, ‘Perhaps a Mishap’. But it’s not only form but the spectre of political context that haunts this sequence.
Petrarch is the ghost in Wyatt’s poems; but here both Wyatt and Petrarch are united as ghosts for Sheppard. Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), diplomat and rumoured lover of Anne Boleyn, was part of Henry VIII’s court in a turbulent time for English politics. He, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, were the first to introduce this new form — the Italian ‘sonnet’ — to English literature.
In the twenty-first century, the ‘I’ of Sheppard’s unrhymed sonnets is a civil servant under pressure, post-referendum, shuttling between Kent and Brussels, struggling with private life (a love relationship) and public role, the M20 in the rain and his Harley Low Rider.
To give you a flavour, here are some lines from ‘Hap 1: Som fowles there be that have so perfaict sight’ —
But it’s 2017 and out of my reverie I’m up to town
to discuss exit strategies with the three jokers.
When Boris, swollen and unstable, asks me,
‘Is there anything in this Putin-Trump-Brexit business?’
I’ll say, ‘Nothing,’ when I’d meant to say nothing,
and I’ll leap from the frying pan of my amour-propre
into the raging fire of his blind ambition.
In every case Wyatt’s original sonnet is indicated in the subtitle, in appropriately ghostly pale grey, so it’s possible to track it down if you have a mind to. Sheppard alludes to these originals in each opening line but loosely, in a way that’s wordplay rather than ‘translation’.
I made a deliberate choice not to return to Wyatt. Instead I let the images and politicians in Sheppard’s cast-list play across my mind as he transforms Wyatt into a servant of the post-2016 Conservative administration.
How quickly history moves on. This sequence was published in 2018, and that’s when the modern Wyatt issues his final prophecy, ending ‘Hap Hazard’ with —
They’re all struck dumb by May’s lightening election call
Remember that? I wonder if post-EU-referendum poetry will one day be identified as a new genre, full of ghosts....
D A Prince