What is the meaning of "So Cruel Prison How Could Betide" by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey? 

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The meaning of this poem seems to focus on the reversal of fortunes that the poet has experienced, and how he is only able to find solace in remembering the kind of life he enjoyed before he became imprisoned and locked up. Henry Howard was a man who was caught up in the political problems of his time, and was arrested at various stages. In this poem what he does is to reflect on his former life, before his present political problems, and to remember the pleasures and joys that he experienced. By far the majority of the poem focuses on these memories, which include descriptions of games of love he used to engage in and the life of luxury and ease that he experienced. The length of these reminiscences demonstrates the way that he is a man who is only able to endure the present circumstances he faces by living, to a certain extent, in the past, and dwelling on what his past life was like before he suffered his fall from grace. It is only towards the end of the poem that he shakes himself out of his daydreams of the past, and remembers the cruel reality that he faces:

Thus I alone, where all my freedom grew,
In prison pine with bondage and restraint;
And with remembrance of the greater grief
To banish the less, I find my chief relief. 

He states that it is only in his memories of his "greater grief," everything that he has lost, that he is able to "banish the less," or forget about hsi present conditions. The meaning of this poem therefore seems to concern memories and how they can be used to sustain us in difficult times, and also perhaps enjoying pleasures as much as we can when we have them. In Howard's life, after all, such pleasures are shown to be only temporary and ephemeral, so it is important to make the most of them whilst you can. 

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