Analysis of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s Poems

An aristocrat with a humanistic education, Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, considered literature a pleasant diversion. As a member of the Tudor court, he was encouraged to display his learning, wit, and eloquence by writing love poems and translating continental and classical works. The poet who cultivated an elegant style was admired and imitated by his peers. Poetry was not considered a medium for self-expression. In the production of literature, as in other polite activities, there were conventions to be observed. Even the works that seem to have grown out of Surrey’s personal experience also have roots in classical, Christian, Italian, or native traditions. Surrey is classical in his concern for balance, decorum, fluency, and restraint. These attributes are evident throughout his work—the amatory lyrics, elegies, didactic verses, translations, and biblical paraphrases.

Love Poems

Surrey produced more than two dozen amatory poems. A number of these owe something to Petrarch and other continental poets. The Petrarchan qualities of his work, as well as those of his successors, should not be exaggerated, however, for Tudor and Elizabethan poets were also influenced by native tradition and by rhetorical treatises which encouraged the equating of elegance and excellence. Contemporaries admired the fluency and eloquence which made Surrey, like Petrarch, a worthy model. His son-net beginning “From Tuscan cam my ladies worthi race,” recognized in his own time as polite verse, engendered the romantic legend that he served the Fair Geraldine (Elizabeth Fitzgerald, b. 1528?), but his love poems are now recognized as literary exercises of a type common in Renaissance poetry.

Surrey’s courtly lovers complain of wounds; they freeze and burn, sigh, weep, and despair—yet continue to serve Love. Representative of this mode is “Love that doth raine and live within my thought,” one of his five translations or adaptations of sonnets by Petrarch. The poem develops from a military conceit: The speaker’s mind and heart are held captive by Love, whose colors are often displayed in his face. When the desired lady frowns, Love retreats to the heart and hides there, leaving the unoffending servant alone, “with sham fast looke,” to suffer for his lord’s sake. Uninterested in the moral aspects of this situation, Surrey makes nothing of the paradox of Love as conqueror and coward. He does not suggest the lover’s ambivalence or explore the lady’s motives. Wyatt, whose translation of the same sonnet begins “The longe love, that in my thought doeth harbor,” indicates (as Petrarch does) that the lady asks her admirer to become a better man. Surrey’s speaker, taught only to “love and suffre paine,” gallantly concludes, “Sweet is the death that taketh end by love.”

The point is not that Surrey’s sonnet should be more like Wyatt’s but that in this poem and in many of his lyrics, Surrey seems less concerned with the complexity of an experience than with his manner of presenting it. Most of the lines are smooth and regularly iambic, although there are five initial trochees. The poem’s matter is carefully accommodated to its form. The first quatrain deals with Love, the second with the lady, and the third with the lover’s plight. His resolve is summarized in the couplet: Despite his undeserved suffering, he will be loyal. The sonnet is balanced and graceful, pleasing by virtue of its musical qualities and intellectual conceit.

Some of the longer poems do portray the emotions of courtly lovers. The speaker in “When sommer toke in hand the winter to assail” observes (as several of Surrey’s lovers do) that nature is renewed in spring, while he alone continues to be weak and hopeless. Casting off his despondency, he curses and defies Love. Then, realizing the gravity of his offense, he asks forgiveness and is told by the god that he can atone only by greater suffering. Now “undone for ever more,” he offers himself as a “miror” for all lovers: “Strive not with love, for if ye do, it will ye thus befall.” Lacking the discipline of the sonnet form, this poem in poulter’s measure seems to sprawl. Surrey’s amatory verse is generally most successful when he focuses on a relatively simple situation or emotion. “When sommer toke in hand the winter to assail,” not his best work, is representative in showing his familiarity with native poetry: It echoes Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1382) and describes nature in a manner characteristic of English poets. In seven other love poems, Surrey describes nature in sympathy with or in contrast to the lover’s condition.


A Woman’s Perspective

At a time when most amatory verse was written from the male perspective, Surrey assumed a woman’s voice in three of his lyrics. The speaker in “Gyrtt in my giltlesse gowne” defends herself against a charge of craftiness pressed by a male courtier in a companion poem beginning “Wrapt in my carelesse cloke.” Accused of encouraging men she does not care for, the lady compares herself to Susanna, who was slandered by corrupt elders. Remarking that her critic himself practices a crafty strategy—trying to ignite a woman’s passion by feigning indifference—she asserts that she, like her prototype, will be protected against lust and lies. This pair of poems, if disappointing because Surrey has chosen not to probe more deeply into the behavior and emotions generated by the game of courtly love, demonstrates the poet’s skill in presenting a speaker in a clearly defined setting or situation. His finest lyrics may fairly be called dramatic.

Two other monologues, “O happy dames, that may embrace” and “Good ladies, ye that have your pleasure in exyle,” are spoken by women lamenting the absence of their beloved lords. They may have been written for Surrey’s wife while he was directing the siege of Boulogne. Long separations troubled him, but his requests to the Privy Councilfor permission to bring his family to France were denied. After an exordium urging her female audience to “mourne with [her] a whyle,” the narrator of “Good ladies” describes tormenting dreams of her “sweete lorde” in danger and at play with “his lytle sonne” (Thomas Howard, oldest of the Surreys’ five children, was born in 1536). The immediate occasion for this poem, however personal, is consciously literary: The lady, a sorrowful “wight,” burns like a courtly lover when her lord is absent, comforted only by the expectation of his return and reflection that “I feele by sower, how sweete is felt the more” (the sweet-sour antithesis was a favorite with courtly poets). Despite the insistent iambic meter characteristic of poulter’s measure, one can almost hear a voice delivering these lines. In the best of his love poetry, Surrey makes new wholes of traditional elements.

Elegiac Poems

Surrey’s elegiac poems reflect his background in rhetoric. Paying tribute to individuals, he would persuade his readers to become more virtuous men and women. “Wyatt resteth here, that quick could never rest,” the first of his works to be published, devotes more attention to praise of Wyatt than to lament and consolation. Using the figure of partitio (division into parts), Surrey anatomizes the physique of this complete man in order to display his virtues—prudence, integrity, eloquence, justice, courage. Having devoted eight quatrains to praise, Surrey proceeds to the lament—the dead man is “lost” to those he might have inspired—with a consolation at the thought that his spirit is now in heaven. He implies that God has removed “this jewel” in order to punish a nation blind to his worth. In so coupling praise and dispraise, Surrey follows a precedent set by classical rhetoricians. He again eulogized Wyatt in two sonnets, “Dyvers thy death do dyversely bemoan” and “In the rude age,” both attacking Wyatt’s enemies. The former devotes a quatrain to each of two kinds of mourners, hypocrites who only seem to grieve and malefactors who “Weape envyous teares heer [his] fame so good.” In the sestet, he sets himself apart: He feels the loss of so admirable a man. Here, as in a number of his sonnets, Surrey achieves a harmony of form and content. There is no evidence that he knew Wyatt personally. His tributes to the older courtier are essentially public performances, but they convey admiration and regret and offer a stinging rebuke to courtiers who do not come up to Wyatt’s standard.

Many sixteenth century poets wrote elegies for public figures; more than twenty appear in Tottel’s Miscellany. Surrey, as indicated above, was familiar with the literary tribute. In “Norfolk sprang thee,” an epitaph for his squire Thomas Clere (d. 1545), he uses some of the conventions of epideictic poetry to express esteem, as well as grief, for the dead. Developed according to the biographical method of praise (seen also in “From Tuscan cam my ladies worthi race”), the sonnet specifies Clere’s origins and personal relationships; it traces his career from his birth in Norfolk to his mortal wound at Montreuil—incurred while saving Surrey’s life—to his burial in the Howards’ chapel at Lambeth. By “placing” Clere geographically and within the contexts of chivalric and human relationships, Surrey immortalizes a brave and noble person. He has succeeded in writing a fresh, even personal poem while observing literary and rhetorical conventions.

Personal feeling and experience certainly went into “So crewell prison,” a lament for Richmond (d. 1536) and the poet’s youthful fellowship with him at Windsor—ironically, the place of his confinement as a penalty for having struck Edward Seymour. Subtly alluding to the ubi sunt tradition, he mentions remembered places, events, and activities—green and graveled courts, dewy meadows, woods, brightly dressed ladies, dances, games, chivalric competition, shared laughter and confidences, promises made and kept—as he does so, conveying his sense of loss. He praises, and longs for, not only his friend but also the irrecoverable past. Of Richmond’s soul he says nothing. His consolation, if so it may be called, is that the loss of his companion lessens the pain of his loss of freedom. “So crewell prison,” perhaps Surrey’s best poem, is at once conventional and personal.

Didactic Poems

Taught to regard the courtier as a counselor, Surrey wrote a few explicitly didactic pieces. His sonnet about Sardanapalus, “Th’ Assyryans king, in peas with fowle desyre,” portrays a lustful, cowardly ruler. Such depravity, Surrey implies, endangers virtue itself. The poem may allude to King Henry VIII, who had executed two Howard queens. (Surrey witnessed Anne Boleyn’s trial and Catherine Howard’s execution.) The degenerate monarch in Surrey’s sonnet, however, bears few resemblances to Henry VIII, who had often shown his regard for Norfolk’s heir and Richmond’s closest friend. John Gower, John Lydgate, and other poets had also told the story of Sardanapulus as a“mirror” for princes. Surrey’s “Laid in my quyett bedd” draws upon Horace’s Ars poetica (c. 17b.c.e.; The Art of Poetry) and the first of his Satires (35b.c.e.,30b.c.e.; English translation, 1567). The aged narrator, after surveying the ages of man, remarks that people young and old always wish to change their estate; he concludes that boyhood is the happiest time, though youths will not realize this truth before they become decrepit. Like certain of the love poems, “Laid in my quyett bedd” illustrates Surrey’s dramatic ability.

London, Has Thou Accused Me

The mock-heroic “London, has thou accused me” was probably written while Surrey was imprisoned for harassing and brawling with some citizens and breaking windows with a stonebow. As C. W. Jentoft points out, the satirist, presenting himself as a God-sent “scourge for synn,” seems to be delivering an oration. “Thy wyndowes had don me no spight,” he explains; his purpose was to awaken Londoners secretly engaged in deadly sins to their peril. Appropriating the structure of the classical oration, he becomes, in effect, not the defendant but the prosecutor of a modern Babylon. The peroration, fortified with scriptural phrasings, warns of divine judgment.

Poetry Translations

Surrey’s translations also reflect the young aristocrat’s classical and humanistic education. He translated two poems advocating the golden mean—a Horatian ode and an epigram by Martial. In the former (“Of thy lyfe, Thomas”) he imitates the terseness of the original. “Marshall, the thinges for to attayne,” the first English translation of that work, is also remarkably concise. His intention to re-create in English the style of a Latin poet is evident in his translations of the second and fourth books of the Aeneid (c.29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). He did not attempt to reproduce Vergil’s un-rhymed hexameters in English Alexandrines (as Richard Stanyhurst was to do) or to translate them into rhymed couplets (as the Scottish poet Gawin Douglas had done). Familiar with the decasyllabic line of Chaucer and other native poets and the verso sciolto (unrhymed verse) of sixteenth century Italy, he devised blank verse, the form that was to be refined by Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and John Milton.

Textual scholars have encountered several problems in studying Surrey’s translation of the Aeneid. His manuscripts are not extant, and all printed versions appeared after his death. The work may have been undertaken as early as 1538 or as late as 1544; in the light of his service at court and in France, it seems likely that the translation was done intermittently. Modern scholars now favor an early period of composition, which would make this translation earlier than many of Surrey’s other works and help to account for their refined, decorous style.

Another issue is the relationship of Surrey’s work to the Eneados of Gawin Douglas (1474?-1522), whose translation had circulated widely in manuscript during Surrey’s youth. Scholar Florence Ridley found evidence of Douglas’s influence in more than 40percent of Surrey’s lines. In book 4, perhaps completed later than book 2, Surrey borrowed from Douglas less frequently. There is other evidence that his style was maturing and becoming more flexible: more frequent run-ons, feminine endings, pauses within the line, and metrical variations.

The distinctive qualities of Surrey’s translation are largely owing to his imitation of Virgil’s style. A young humanist working in an immature language and using a new form, Surrey was trying, as Italian translators had done, to re-create in the vernacular his Latin master’s compactness, restraint, and stateliness. He did not always succeed. Generally avoiding both prosaic and aureate vocabulary, he uses relatively formal diction. To a modern reader accustomed to the blank verse developed by later poets, the iambic meter is so regular as to be somewhat monotonous. By means of patterned assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme, as well as the placement of caesuras, he has achieved a flowing movement that approximates Virgilian verse paragraphs. Phonetic effects often pleasing in themselves heighten emotional intensity and help to establish the phrase, not the line, as the poetic unit. It is not surprising, then, that Thomas Warton called Surrey England’s first classical poet. Imitation led to innovation, the creation of a form for English heroic poetry. Even though blank verse did not come into general use until late in the sixteenth century, Surrey’s achievement remains monumental.

Biblical Paraphrases

The paraphrases of Ecclesiastes 1-5 and Psalms 55, 73, and 88, Surrey’s most nearly autobiographical works, portray the “slipper state” of life in the Tudor court. Probably written during his final imprisonment in late 1546, they speak of vanity and vexation of spirit and cry out against vicious enemies, treacherous friends, and a tyrant who drinks the blood of innocents. Like Wyatt, whose penitential psalms he admired, he used Joannes Campensis’s Latin paraphrases which had been published in 1532. Surrey’s translations are free, amplifying and at times departing from the Vulgate and Campensis, as in this line from his version of Ecclesiastes 2: “By princely acts [such as the pursuit of pleasure and building of fine houses] strave I still to make my fame indure.”Although his background was Catholic, these poems express Protestant sentiments.

In his versions of Psalms 73 and 88, he speaks of God’s “elect” and “chosen,” apparently placing himself in that company. While praying for forgiveness in Psalm 73, he notes that his foes are going unscathed and asks why he is “scourged still, that no offence have doon.” Psalm 55 calls for divine help as he faces death and exulting enemies; at the end of this unpolished, perhaps unfinished poem, Surrey completely departs from his printed sources to inveigh against wolfish adversaries. The time to live was almost past, but it was not yet the time to keep silence. Like the other biblical paraphrases, this work has chiefly biographical interest. Expecting imminent execution, Surrey was still experimenting with prosody: Psalm 55 is the one poem in this group to be written in unrhymed hexameters rather than poulter’s measure. Even in his last works, the poet is generally detached and self-effacing. Surrey’s greatest legacy to English poets is a concern for fluent, graceful expression.

Major Works
Translations: The Fourth Boke of Virgill, 1554; Certain Bokes of Virgiles Aenaeis, 1557.

Childs, Jessie. Henry VIII’s Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
Heale, Elizabeth. Wyatt, Surrey, and Early Tudor Poetry. New York: Longman, 1998.
Lines, Candace. “The Erotic Politics of Grief in Surrey’s ‘So crewell prison.” Studiesin English Literature, 1500-1900 46, no. 1 (2006): 1-26.
Sessions, William A. Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life. 1999.
Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Spearing, A. C. Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Thomson, Patricia. “Wyatt and Surrey.” InEnglish Poetry and Prose, 1540-1674, edited by Christopher Ricks. 1970.
Walker, Greg. Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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