What is the theme of Henry Howard's poem "So cruel prison how could betide?"

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, wrote "So cruel prison how could betide" when he was imprisoned.

I believe the theme of Howard's poem is that "good friends and good times can be lost at any time, so appreciate them while you can." The Earl of Surrey was a talented young man, however, caught up in the politics of the time, he was arrested more than once. The final time, in order to break the power of the Howard family, a rival falsely accused him of treason, and Henry Howard was executed at the age of thirty. However, he was not the only one of his friends to leave this world too early. The poem describes a great man situations they all enjoyed together.

This poem speaks to Howard's experiences of the past, and some of the company he kept:

With a king's son my childish years did pass...

The places he visited and how he felt:

The large green courts, where we were wont to hove,
With eyes cast up unto the Maidens' Tower,
And easy sighs, such as folk draw in love.

Even as he remembers these things, the sweet memories turn sour because of the change in his circumstances.

Where each sweet place returns a taste full sour...

Howard recalls the women in their brightly colored clothes, the dances and "long tails of great delight." He remembers playing a game and losing sight of the ball because he had seen one he loved and tried to impress her: "To bait her eyes..."

There were times when friends participated in "sword play," the drinking "...silver drops [of] mead...", playing games "of nimbleness and strength" where their limbs had yet to grow (i.e., they were still very young). There was the company of ladies, time in the wild forest, and riding in the hunt, pursuing deer ("hart"):

With cry of hounds and merry blasts between,
Where we did chase the fearful hart a force...

Things that he took for granted—a good night's rest and happy dreams:

...such sleeps as yet delight,
The pleasant dreams, the quiet bed of rest...

Howard recalls, in general, the good fortune he has enjoyed: the trust of friends, foolish talk, friendships, careful promises and things that passed the time in the dead of winter, things he probably never thought would disappear:

The secret thoughts imparted with such trust,
The wanton talk, the divers change of play,
The friendship sworn, each promise kept so just,
Wherewith we passed the winter nights away.

At this point, the tone of the poem pivots, changing dramatically. The joy of these memories fades in face of the reality of his present situation. The blood drains from his face, tears course down his cheeks, his sighs are sobs. In prison he wishes ("pines") for freedom. He finds little relief.

Hippolyte Taine, author of History of English literature, writes that the poem expresses Howard's enormous sense of loss over the passing of friends—all of who died young. Howard would soon join them.

[Surrey] records his griefs, regretting his beloved Wyatt, his friend Clere, his companion the young Duke of Richmond, all dead in their prime. Alone, a prisoner at Windsor, he recalls the happy days they have passed together.

The majority of the poem's images describe the past and days that brought Henry Howard a great deal of pleasure. The end of the poem is steeped in grief, expressing the pain over the loss of his friends and the wonderful days they spent together.

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