Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 6. Henry Howard, earl of Surrey

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

VIII. The New English Poetry

§ 6. Henry Howard, earl of Surrey

The exact relation of Surrey to Wyatt has been a matter of dispute. The accident of birth, no doubt, led to Surrey’s poems being placed before those of Wyatt in Tottel’s Miscellany, and this accident may have induced commentators to regard Surrey as the master of Wyatt, rather than to take the probably more truthful view, that each influenced the other, but that Wyatt was the pioneer. He was, at any rate, an older man than Surrey, who was born in 1516(?). Henry Howard was the eldest son of lord Thomas Howard, son of Thomas, earl of Surrey and duke of Norfolk, and himself became, by courtesy, earl of Surrey in 1524, on his father’s succeeding to the dukedom. From a poem to which reference will be made later it seems possible that he was educated with the duke of Richmond, Henry VII’s natural son, who, later, married his sister. At any rate, he was brought up in all the virtues and practices of chivalry, which find a large place in his poems. He visited the Field of the Cloth of Gold with the duke of Richmond, possibly accompanied him thence to Paris to study and lived with him, later, at Windsor. In 1536, the duke died, and the same year saw the execution of Surrey’s cousin, Anne Boleyn. In 1540, we find him a leader in the tournament held at the marriage of Anne of Cleves, and, after a mission to Guisnes, he was appointed, in 1541, steward of Cambridge university. Part of the next year he spent in the Fleet prison, on a charge of having sent a challenge; but, being soon released on payment of a heavy fine, he began his military career by joining his father in an expedition against the Scots. The next episode in his life is difficult of explanation: he was brought before the privy council on a charge of eating meat in Lent and of breaking windows in the city with a cross-bow. His own explanation was (cf. London! hast thou accusèd me) that it was an access of protestant fervour: he regarded himself as “a figure of the Lord’s behest,” sent to warn the sinful city of her doom. In this connection, it is fair to remember that, later, he was accused of being inimical to the new religion. The obvious explanation was that the proceeding was a piece of Mohockism on the part of a (possibly intoxicated) man of twenty-seven. At any rate, Surrey had to suffer for the excess. He was again shut up in the Fleet, where, probably, he paraphrased one or more of the psalms. On his release, he was sent, in October, 1543, to join the English troops then assisting the emperor in the siege of Landrecy; and, in 1544, he won further military honour by his defence of Boulogne. On his return, he was thrown into prison at Windsor, owing to the intrigues of his father’s enemy, Jane Seymour’s brother, the earl of Hertford; was released, again imprisoned, and beheaded in January, 1546/7.

In his military prowess, his scholarship, his position at court, his poetry and his mastery in chivalric exercises, Surrey is almost as perfect a knight as Sidney himself. And what strikes the reader most forcibly in the love poems which form the bulk of his work is their adherence to the code of the chivalric courts of love. There is not to be found in Surrey the independence, the manliness or the sincerity of Wyatt. In his love poems, he is an accomplished gentleman playing a graceful game, with what good effect on English poetry will be seen shortly. Surrey was formally married at 16; but the subject of many of his poems was not his wife, but his “lady” in the chivalric sense, the mistress whose “man” he had become by a vow of fealty. Setting aside the legends that have grown up about this fair Geraldine, from their root in Nashe’s fiction, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), to the sober “biography” of Anthony à Wood and others, the pertinent facts that may be regarded as true are no more than these: that Elizabeth Fitz-Gerald was a daughter of the ninth earl of Kildare, and, on her father’s death in the Tower, was brought up in the houehold of princess Mary, becoming one of her ladies of the chamber. That she was a mere child when Surrey first began to address poems to her confirms the impression received by the candid reader: these poems, in fact, are the result, not of a sincere passion, but of the rules of the game of chivalry as played in its decrepitude and Surrey’s youth. Like Wyatt, he takes his ideas from Petrarch, of whose sonnets he translates four completely, while Ariosto provides another; and his whole body of poetry contains innumerable ideas and images drawn from Petrarch, but assimilated and used in fresh settings. The frailtie and hurtfulnesse of beautie; Vow to love faithfully howsoever he be rewarded; Complaint that his ladie after she knew of his love kept her face alway hidden from him; Description of Spring, wherin eche thing renewes, save onelie the lover; Complaint of a lover, that defied love, and was by love after the more tormented; Complaint of a diyng lover refused upon his ladies injust mistaking of his writyng—such are the stock subjects, as they may almost be called, of the Petrarchists which Surrey reproduces. But he reproduces them in every case with an ease and finish that prove him to have mastered his material, and his graceful fancies are admirably expressed. Earlier in the chapter we quoted Wyatt’s translation of a sonnet by Petrarch. Let us compare with it Surrey’s version of the same:

  • Love that liveth, and reigneth in my thought,
  • That built his seat within my captive brest,
  • Clad in the armes, wherin with me he fought,
  • Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.
  • She, that me taught to love, and suffer payne,
  • My doutfull hope, and eke my hote desyre,
  • With shamefast cloke to shadowe and refraine,
  • Her smilyng grace converteth straight to yre.
  • And cowarde Love then to the hart apace
  • Taketh his flight, whereas he lurkes, and plaines
  • His purpose lost, and dare not shewe his face.
  • For my lordes gilt thus faultlesse byde I paynes.
  • Yet from my lorde shall not my foote remove,
  • Swete is his death, that takes his end by love.
  • The advance in workmanship is obvious at a glance. There is no need to count Surrey’s syllables on the fingers, and the caesuras are arranged with variety and skill. The first line contains one of the very few examples in Surrey’s poems of an accented weak syllable (livèth), and there, as in nearly all the other cases, in the first two feet of the line. It will be noticed, however, that, whereas Wyatt was content with two rimes for his octave, in Petrarchian fashion, Surrey frankly makes up his sonnet of three quatrains and a couplet, which was the form the sonnet mainly took in the hands of his Elizabethan followers. Once or twice, Surrey runs the same pair of rimes right through his first twelve lines; but gains, on the whole, little advantage thus. Whichever plan he follows, the result is the same: that, improving on Wyatt’s efforts, he makes of the sonnet—what had never existed before in English poetry—a single symphonic effect. It is worth nothing, too, that, though his references to Chaucer are even more frequent than Wyatt’s, Surrey polishes and refines, never leaving unaltered the archaisms which Wyatt sometimes incorporated with his own language.