Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 8. Surrey’s translations from Vergil and blank verse

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

VIII. The New English Poetry

§ 8. Surrey’s translations from Vergil and blank verse

His clearest title to fame, however, rests on his translations from the Aeneid of Vergil into blank verse. There is unrimed verse even in Chaucer (Tale of Melibeus); and the movement against rime as a piece of medieval barbarity, which was supported, later, by Gabriel Harvey and even by Campion and found its greatest exponent in Milton, had already begun. Still, it is most likely that it was from Italian poetry (possibly Molza’s translation of Vergil, 1541) that Surrey immediately drew the idea. The merits of the translation do not very much concern us; the merit of having introduced to England the metre of Tamburlaine the Great, The Tempest, Paradise Lost and The Excursion is one that can hardly be overrated. Surrey’s own use of the metre, if a little stiff and too much inclined to make a break at the end of each line, is a wonderful achievement for his time, and a further proof of his genuine poetical ability.

We have referred to Surrey as a perfect knight; and, in one of his poems, which all readers will possibly agree in thinking his best and sincerest, he gives a picture of his youth which shows in little all the elements of the courtier-knight. This is the Elegy on the duke of Richmond, as it has been called (So cruell prison how coulde betide, alas), which he wrote early in 1546 during his imprisonment in “proude Windsor,” the scene of his earlier and happier days. In this, he draws a picture of the life led by himself and his friend. We hear, first of all, of the large green courts whence the youths were wont to look up, sighing, to the ladies in the Maidens’ Tower; then of the dances, the tales of chivalry and love; the tennis-court, where the ball was often missed because the player was looking at the ladies in the gallery; the knightly exercises on horseback and on foot; the love-confidences exchanged; the stag-hunt in the forest; the vows of friendship, the bright honour. Here is as clear and complete a picture of the standard of knighthood as any that exists; and chivalry, decaying and mainly reminiscent as it may even then have been, was the inspiration of Surrey’s life and of his poetry. It must be noted of him, too, that he shows a fresh and original delight in nature, and was probably the author (as stated in England’s Helicon) of the famous pastoral Phylida was a fayer mayde.