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

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.


karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey's sonnet "Alas, so all things now do hold their peace!" presents the calm of the surrounding world in contrast to the speaker's tumultuous desires.

The first four lines of the sonnet read: 

Alas, so all things now do hold their peace!
   Heaven and earth disturbèd in no thing;
The beasts, the air, the birds their song do cease,
   The nightès car the stars about doth bring;
The opening line is the main idea of the first part of the poem: everything in the world seems peaceful. The speaker goes on to list examples, including both "Heaven and earth" which are undisturbed by any conflict. Within that world, "beasts," "air," and "birds" are all calm and quiet. The night sky quietly displays its stars.
In the next lines, this main idea appears to continue before we see a shift:
Calm is the sea; the waves work less and less:
   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 case.
Line 5 reiterates that the world is calm, this time exemplified by the still sea. However, line 6 presents a shift: despite the peace in the surrounding world, the speaker is "not" because of his love, which seems to torture, or "wring" him. His love highlights to him, "Bringing before his face," the reality of his desires, which are anything but calm. He describes a rollercoaster of emotions, "joy and woe," which make him either "weep" or "sing." 
Next, the speaker elaborates upon his mixed and erratic emotions:
 For my sweet thoughts sometime do pleasure bring:
But by and by, the cause of my disease
   Gives me a pang that inwardly doth sting,
When that I think what grief it is again
To live and lack the thing should rid my pain.   
He says that his desire sometimes brings him pleasure but it also brings him pain. He feels "a pang that inwardly doth sting." Thinking about his love makes him "grie[ve]." We learn in the final line that he cannot be with the person he loves, and it is this "lack" of the cure for his pain that "stings" him so. 
Ultimately, the Earl of Surrey presents a fairly common theme in sonnets: unrequited love. This kind of love causes both pleasure and pain in the speaker, making it impossible for him to fully appreciate the beauty and wonder of the world around him. 

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