How might one interpret the sonnet "Alas, So All Things Now Do Hold Their Peace," by Henry Howard?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The poem by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey that begins “Alas, so all things now” is based on an original poem by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, known in English as Petrarch. In this poem, the speaker contrasts his own inner torment with the peacefulness of the rest of God’s creation. The speaker’s restlessness is caused by his selfish desire for a beautiful woman.  This desire, known as cupiditas, puts him at odds with God’s teachings as well with non-human creations, which follow the patterns God intends them to follow.

Line 1 opens with an expression of emotion (“Alas”), but it then quickly asserts that everything surrounding the speaker is at “peace.” Line 2 reports that

“Heaven and earth [are] disturbèd in no thing.” Unlike the speaker himself, each aspect of physical creation is quiet and calm (3). Even the non-rational “beasts” are at peace, as the human speaker (endowed with the great gift of reason) is not. The stars move in the patterns God appointed for them (4). Even the ocean – a standard symbol of mutability and unsettledness (5) – is calm.  However, after emphasizing the calm of the physical universe, the speaker proclaims,

So am not I, whom love, alas! doth wring,

Bringing before my face the great increase

Of my desires, whereat I weep and sing,

In joy and woe, as in a doubtful ease. (6-9)

The speaker explains that his own lack of peace results from being tortured by “love” (6). This “love,” however, is not true love (caritas) at all; it is not, in other words, the kind of selfless love of God, and of God’s creatures, that God intends humans to display as the chief virtue of their characters. The false love felt by the speaker, which is rooted in selfish “desires” (8), causes him to experiences the kinds of conflicting emotions so typical of speakers in Petrarchan poems (8-9).

Although the speaker calls his thoughts “sweet” (10) because they are sometimes pleasurable (10), ultimately he acknowledges that the cause of his “disease” (sickness, with a pun on “dis-ease,” or lack of ease [11]), causes him inward pain.  The “cause” of his lack of ease is, superficially, the woman he desires, but the real cause of disease is his own selfish (presumably sensual) longings. In the final couplet, the purely physical nature of his passion is emphasized when he thinks about the “thing” that he thinks is capable of ridding him of his pain. The word “thing,” in Howard’s day and in such a context, had specific sexual overtones, referring to the vagina (as when Emilia in Shakspeare’s Othello tells her husband, Iago, “I have a thing for you,” and he interprets the comment as a sexual invitation).

Howard’s poem, like its Petrarchan original, mocks the false “love” that controls (and disturbs) the speaker’s thoughts. The poem is essentially a satire on a foolish male whose lust puts him out of synch with the rest of God’s creation.