The poem by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, that begins “Alas, so all things now do hold their peace!” is an adaptation of poem 164 from Franceso Petrarca’s (Petrarch’s) collection of poems titled Rime sparse (Scattered Rhymes), otherwise known as the Canzioniere. Both Petrarch’s poem and Howard’s adaptation are extremely typical, in their details, of the kinds of poetry for which Petrarch is famous. The emphasis on the word “peace,” for instance, is completely characteristic of Petrarch’s poetry, which often deals with a lack of peace and with the hope of eventually achieving peace in various ways.
In Howard’s poem, the word “peace” mainly refers to calmness, quiet, and obedience to proper order: everything in nature (the speaker says) is at peace. Everything is quiet and is functioning smoothly, obeying (it is implied) the rules of God, who created man and everything else that exists. Nature is operating entirely as God intended, and even the ocean – a standard symbol of mutability or constant change – is at peace:
Calm is the sea, the waves work less and less. (5)
Unfortunately, the speaker is not at “peace” because selfish desire (known in this period as cupiditas) dominates his mind and his feelings. This kind of “love” (which is really lust and which is associated with Cupid, the god of selfish yearnings) brings
. . . before my face the great increase
Of my desires, whereat I weep and sing,
In joy and woe, as in a doubtful ease . . . (6-8)
In other words, the speaker feels torn mentally in opposite directions and feels divided by ambivalent feelings. This kind of torment and ambivalence is completely typical of the speakers of “Petrarchan” poems and is something that Petrarchan poets tend to satirize implicitly through the use of irony. We should not, that is, look to these speakers as models for our own conduct but should instead see them as negative examples who unintentionally teach us how not to act. Poems like this one implicitly encourage us to seek the kind of peace the speaker lacks: peace of mind, peace in one’s emotions, spiritual peace, and peace with God. Line 6 (especially) and other references in the poem make it clear that the source of this speaker’s lack of “peace” is “love” (that is, false love, selfish desire, lust, cupiditas). The only way for the speaker to achieve true “peace” (as this and other Petrarchan poems imply) is to achieve true love – love of God and love as God wants his human creatures to love. Nature, in this poem, is at peace; only the speaker is “out of synch” with God’s plans and God’s designs.
The situation is quite similar in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem “I find no peace,” which is an adaptation or translation of Petrarch’s poem 134 from the Rime sparse. Once again, the emphasis is on the paradoxical, ambivalent emotions produced by selfish desire. Wyatt and Surrey, who were good friends, obviously embraced the fundamentally Christian lessons that Petrarch sought to teach. Both men memorably passed those lessons on to their own readers through their own adaptations of Petrarch’s poems.