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From "Who list his wealth and ease retain", by Thomas Wyatt:

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain:
For sure, circa regna tonat.

What is the meaning of the phrase in bold? The word return probably means "going back through the same gate", "disdain" probably means "the person who goes back from this gate earns contempt".

But what is "the return stands by disdain"? I looked up the meanings of "stand by" and I cannot understand what it means here.

Can "stand by" here mean "equal", as in the phrase "go by the name of"? "Return goes by the name of distain", "return equals disdain".

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A standard meaning of stand by is accompany loyally. This is the only definition provided for the transitive use of that compound verb in Merriam-Webster:

transitive verb
: to remain loyal or faithful to : DEFEND
// stood by his decision

The line in question uses the phrase transitively: return stands by disdain. It can be explained: Do not follow a path to glory too hastily, because your return along that path will accompany disdain like a loyal companion. I.e., be circumspect when you seek recognition, because even if you get it, you are always at risk of losing your glory and encountering scorn instead.

A line-by-line reading of the quoted excerpt shows how this meaning is applicable here.

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.

Those who want to retain an easy life should stay inconspicuous and not draw attention to themselves. This is easily relatable to the historical circumstances of Wyatt's times, and even specifically to his own life. Wyatt was born into comfortable circumstances, but was a relatively unknown quantity until he was singled out to be a diplomat for Henry VIII. Being close to the king was of course a great opportunity, but given Henry's mercurial temperament, also perilous. Many who had served Henry admirably, including Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, ended up beheaded when they fell out of favor.

Wyatt himself came very close to meeting this fate. It is generally believed that Wyatt was a lover of Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, for whom he divorced Catherine of Aragon and precipitated the English Reformation. Wyatt had known Anne for several years prior to her marriage to the king. When Anne herself fell out of favor with Henry, the king accused her of adultery. Since adultery against the king also constituted treason, Anne was convicted of a capital crime. Several men rumored to be her lovers, including Wyatt, were arrested around the same time. Wyatt was in the Tower of London when Anne was executed, and it is said that this poem was written after he witnessed her beheading from a window in his cell.

This explains the next two lines:

Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain:

Do not be too hasty to go through the gate where, when you return by it, you will be inevitably accompanied by scorn. This sentiment applies to Anne Boleyn just as much as it does to Wyatt. Anne was well-born and could have had the typical life of a noblewoman of her day: marriage to a courtier and a comfortable, if relatively obscure, life. Instead, she came to the king's notice. This got her the glory of being England's queen, but it was also her downfall. Having pressed ... in at that gate of fame and fortune, her return stood by disdain. She was called an adulteress and a whore when probably her only real crime was that she bore Henry a daughter instead of the male heir he longed for.

Wyatt narrowly escaped Anne's fate. Not only did he come very close to losing his own life; those convicted of treason also had their wealth confiscated, so his family would have lost their money as well. Wyatt's expert diplomatic skills, both personal and professional, allowed him to evade this outcome. He was able to regain the king's favor and was in fact not only released from the Tower, but also restored to his diplomatic missions on behalf of the king. His tumultuous experience informs the last line of this verse:

For sure, circa regna tonat.

The Latin phrase translates to Thunder encircles the throne. As the idea of being a loyal companion to disdain itself indicates, Wyatt is a master of irony. This line has two levels of meaning ironically played off against each other. The first straightforwardly continues the philosophical exhortation of the previous lines: if you achieve any kind of splendor, such as a throne, danger is all around you. The second refers to Henry VIII's mercurial temperament. Henry is metonymically the throne, and his raging temper the thunder.

From this historical and biographical explanation, we can understand why Wyatt counsels the reader to beware of seeking fame. People whom Henry favored could achieve great splendor, but only by risking their reputation, money, and lives. Generalizing from this specific situation, Wyatt says in this poem that it is better to be comfortable rather than to gamble that comfort for the sake of greater glory. The loss of that glory is almost certain, and disdain is always standing by.

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Lines three and four can be paraphrased as follows:

Do not hasten too fast at that gate
Where, returning through it, you will get other people's disdain.

None of the meanings of "stand" or "stand by" in A Shakespeare Glossary by C. T. Onions (revised by Robert D. Eagleson, Oxford University Press, 1986) seem to match the intended meaning. The above paraphrase is based on the following glosses for the fourth line:

  • "stands by disdain": "exposes you to disdain". (Sixteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology. Edited by Gordon Braden. Blackwell, 2005. Page 58.)
  • "Where ... disdained": "From which your forced exit will be disdained". (The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Edition, Volume A. Edited by Joseph Black, et al. Third edition. Broadview Press, 2017. Page 614)
  • "Where the return stands by disdain": "Where, forced to exit, you experience others' disdain" (Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001, edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu. Norton, 2014).
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  • Does the phrase "stands by" here means "equals", that is, "where return equals disdain*? The use of "stands by" confused me a little. "Where the notion of return stands by the name disdain" – CopperKettle Feb 14 at 19:36
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    I'm not sure if Wyatt is using a standard meaning here; it is not a meaning that I could find in Shakespeare, for example. So I have added a few existing glosses of that line. – Tsundoku Feb 14 at 19:59
  • Are you sure that the meaning isn't "they will disdain you and shove you back through the gate"? – Peter Shor Feb 14 at 20:04
  • @PeterShor Wouldn't that result in "Do not hasten through that gate where they will disdain you and shove you back through it"? Or how do you propose to make sense of lines 3 and 4 together? – Tsundoku Feb 14 at 20:07
  • @Tsundoku: I was just trying to make sense of the grammar of return stands by disdain. As you said, none of the definition of stands quite matches the intended meaning, and I think this meaning might fit the grammar better. When you get cast out of high social circles, possibly one the means that people can use to cast you out is disdain. – Peter Shor Feb 14 at 21:11

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