Henry Earl of Surrey Howard Essay - Critical Essays

Howard, Henry Earl of Surrey


Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey 1517-1547

English poet and translator.

Surrey is known as an important innovator in the development of English verse. Together with his friend and mentor Thomas Wyatt, Surrey is credited with adapting to English the Petrarchan sonnet, which became the dominant sonnet form of the Elizabethan period, and the form employed by Shakespeare. He is also heralded as composing the first blank verse in English, in his translation of Books II and IV of Virgil's Aeneid. He also authored numerous poems, sonnets, and elegies, the most famous of which, “Wyatt resteth here,” memorializes his friend, with whose name and critical reputation he has been inextricably linked.

Biographical Information

Henry Howard was born in 1517 into the most influential aristocratic family in England. His father was the third Duke of Norfolk and his mother was Lady Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of the Duke of Buckingham. Four years before Surrey's birth his father and grandfather had defeated the Scots in battle at Flodden Field, thereby establishing the Howards as the undisputed military leaders of the country. The family also assumed a leadership position in defending the feudal rights and responsibilities of the old conservative nobility. When his grandfather died and his father became Duke of Norfolk, young Henry was granted the title of Earl of Surrey. The family then moved from Surrey's birthplace in Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, to Kenninghall, Norfolk, where Surrey was tutored in the classics and in religious conservatism by John Clerke, an Oxford scholar.

Surrey was a great favorite of Henry VIII, and in 1530 he became the companion and tutor of Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, the illegitimate son of the king. The next five years were spent primarily in Windsor, although in 1532 Surrey and Richmond traveled to the Continent, where they took up residence at the French court for a year. Also in 1532 Surrey married Lady Frances de Vere, daughter of the Earl of Oxford; the couple had a son, Thomas, in 1536. That same year, Surrey joined his father in suppressing the Pilgrimage of Grace, a revolt in the north of England. Shortly thereafter, Surrey was imprisoned at Windsor Castle for a few months after striking Edward Seymour, brother of the queen, within the precincts of the court; Seymour had suggested that Surrey and his father were secretly supportive of the rebellion. Surrey memorialized his incarceration in the sonnet “When Windesor walles sustained my wearied arm.” In 1542 Surrey was briefly confined to Fleet Prison for issuing a challenge to John à Leigh, and in 1543 he was again imprisoned, this time for harassing citizens and breaking windows, along with a number of rowdy aristocratic companions. Surrey responded to the charges in the poem “London hast thow accused me” (also known as the “Satire on London”).

As a military man, Surrey rose to the position of “Lieutenant-General of the King on Land and Sea of all the Continental Possessions of England.” In 1545 he took up arms against the French and was wounded at Montreuil. For more than a year he served as commander at Boulogne, where he reorganized the English forces and fortified the defenses of the city—both of which were in a state of disarray when he took over. Back at court in 1546, Surrey became embroiled in another dispute with the Seymours. He was arrested for attacking a Seymour supporter, charged with treason, and convicted. He was beheaded on January 19, 1547; he was twenty-nine years old.

Major Poetic Works

The majority of Surrey's work was not published during his lifetime, but circulated in manuscript. The first significant publication of his works came in 1557, with Richard Tottel's printing of Songes and Sonettes (commonly known as Tottel's Miscellany). Although Surrey's name appears on the title page, he wrote less than a third of the book's contents, some forty poems. The remaining contributions have been attributed to Wyatt (ninety-six poems), Nicholas Grimald (forty poems), and various other authors who were collectively responsible for an additional ninety-five poems. Also in 1557 Surrey's blank verse translation of Books II and IV of Virgil's Aeneid appeared. Surrey additionally produced translations of several biblical psalms and a number of sonnets of the Italian poet Petrarch. More adaptations than true translations, Surrey's Petrarchan sonnets, along with those of Wyatt, represent the first poems in English to utilize the form. One of Surrey's best-known individual poems is “Spring Lament,” sometimes known by the beginning of its first line, “The Soote Season,” which adapts the conventions of Medieval amatory verse. Surrey's elegies include “So crewel prison,” mourning the death of the Duke of Richmond, the companion of Surrey's youth; “Norfolk Sprang Thee,” an epitaph on Thomas Clere, a family squire; and two elegies on Wyatt, the well-known “Wyatt resteth here” and a lesser-known sonnet based on one of Wyatt's poems. “Wyatt resteth here,” composed in 1542, at the time of Wyatt's death, was one of the few poems published in Surrey's lifetime, when it was printed around 1545 in An Excellent Epitaffe of syr Thomas wyat, with two other dytties. It has been called Surrey's most important single work, but is also considered his least characteristic, since it contains no personal references to his relationship to Wyatt or to his own grief at Wyatt's passing.

Critical Reception

As an innovator, Surrey is often credited with producing the first blank verse in the English language in his translation of the Aeneid, although this was not always acknowledged. According to Ants Oras, Surrey's “command of some of the finer points of blank verse technique seems … to have escaped the notice of literary critics.” O. B. Hardison, too, has observed out that “Surrey's achievement was ignored by his successors,” pointing out that John Milton, believing he was breaking new ground in Paradise Lost, “had to make many of Surrey's discoveries about heroic blank verse all over again.” Regarding Surrey's innovations in the sonnet form, Ivy L. Mumford has claimed that “Surrey was initiating a new stage of English Petrarchism in which it began to free itself from translation to establish some metrical independence of Italian sources.” In contrast, Emrys Jones has insisted that Surrey's “powers of invention and of forming independent structures were small,” and “in those places in the sonnets where he deserts Petrarch he usually exposes his incapacity.” W. A. Sessions has asserted that Surrey, in his elegy to Wyatt, invented a radical new role for the poet in England. “Surrey defines the ideological terms for the new poet of honor and nobility,” Sessions claims, and Surrey's own role thus shifted to that of aristocrat-poet. This was widely recognized in the later Renaissance as not only radical but as “a special moment of origin,” according to Sessions. Today, Surrey's accomplishments and innovations, particularly in his use of blank verse, are recognized as marking a significant development in the history of English poetry.

Principal Works

An Excellent Epitaffe of syr Thomas wyat, with two other dytties c. 1545

Certain Bokes of Virgiles Aeneis Turned Into English Meter by the right honorable Lord, Henry earle of Surrey [translator] 1557

*Songes and Sonettes written by the right honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other 1557

The Poems of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey [edited by Frederick Morgan Padelford] 1920; revised 1928

The Aeneid of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey [edited by F. H. Ridley] 1963

Henry Howard Earl of Surrey: Poems [edited by Emrys Jones] 1964

Selected Poems [edited by Dennis Keene] 1985

*This collection, often called Tottel's Miscellany after its publisher, Richard Tottel, represents the first publication of most of Surrey's lyric poems, which circulated in manuscript during his life. It also includes works by Thomas Wyatt and others.


Frederick Morgan Padelford (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Padelford, Frederick Morgan. “Surrey's Contribution to English Poetry.” In The Poems of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Revised Edition, pp. 44-55. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1928.

[In the following essay, Padelford analyzes Surrey's prosody, declaring that “Surrey's claims to distinction rest primarily upon his establishment of the Shakespeare sonnet and his introduction of blank verse.”]

In the history of English literature the name of Surrey is invariably linked with that of Sir Thomas Wyatt for these two men were the most distinguished poets of the early Renaissance school. Attentive readers of the contemporary French, Italian, and...

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Ants Oras (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: Oras, Ants. “Surrey's Technique of Phonetic Echoes: A Method and Its Background.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 50 (1951): 289-308.

[In the following essay, Oras discusses Surrey's blank verse translation of the Aeneid, maintaining that the work is very likely the first use of blank verse in English.]


The opening lines of the Earl of Surrey's version of the second book of the Aeneid read as follows:1

They whisted all, with fixed face attent,
When prince Aeneas from the royal seat
Thus gan to speak: “O Quene! it is thy wil
I should renew a woe cannot be told,
How that the Grekes...

(The entire section is 8369 words.)

C. S. Lewis (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Lewis, C. S. “Drab Age Verse.” In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, pp. 222-71. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis explores the nature of the relationship between Surrey and Wyatt.]

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey,1 was in his twenties when Wyatt died and there is no doubt that he greatly admired Wyatt both as a poet and as a man. But the relation between them was not exactly that of master and pupil. Surrey saw Wyatt as one who had ‘dayly’ produced some famous work ‘to turne to Britains gayn’ and ‘taught what might be sayd in ryme’. Though they come in a poetical elegy (where a man...

(The entire section is 2160 words.)

Emrys Jones (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Jones, Emrys. Introduction to Henry Howard Earl of Surrey: Poems, edited by Emrys Jones, pp. xi-xxv. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

[In the following essay, Jones provides an overview of Surrey's career as an innovative poet.]

In his History of English Poetry (1781) Thomas Warton pronounced Surrey ‘the first English classical poet’. For him the observation did not need justifying, it was self-evidently true; but today it may perplex. Literary history is attended with many difficulties: it is rarely possible to say of a writer that he is doing something quite new and that he is ushering in a new school. The sixteenth century presents a confused...

(The entire section is 5441 words.)

C. W. Jentoft (essay date summer 1973)

SOURCE: Jentoft, C. W. “Surrey's Four ‘Orations’ and the Influence of Rhetoric on Dramatic Effect.” Papers on Language & Literature 9, no. 3 (summer 1973): 250-62.

[In the following essay, Jentoft explains the reasons for the neglect of Surrey's poetry by twentieth-century scholars.]

The Earl of Surrey's modern critical reputation is a curious one: everyone knows about his poetry, but few have read it seriously, and fewer yet have read it approvingly. Its place in the development of English prosody requires a few paragraphs in any Renaissance survey, but its individual merits either go unnoticed or serve as foils to the very different virtues of poems...

(The entire section is 5474 words.)

Walter R. Davis (essay date winter 1974)

SOURCE: Davis, Walter R. “Contexts in Surrey's Poetry.” English Literary Renaissance 4, no. 1 (winter 1974): 40-55.

[In the following essay, Davis examines Surrey's “concern for wholeness, for singleness of effect” in his poetry.]

In his pioneering essay “The Art of Sir Thomas Wyatt,” Hallett Smith drew attention to Wyatt's superiority over Surrey by comparison of the former's “The longe love that in my thought doeth harbar” and the latter's “Love that doth raine and live within my thought,” both translations of Petrarch's “Amor, che nel penser” (CXL); Wyatt's superiority, he noted, lay in the greater clarity of his imagery and the forcefulness...

(The entire section is 6361 words.)

Alastair Fowler (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Fowler, Alastair. “Surrey's Formal Style.” In Conceitful Thought: The Interpretation of English Renaissance Poems, pp. 21-37. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Fowler studies formal structure in Surrey's poetry as a way of discovering possible indirect meanings in his verse.]

Most critics find the temperate region confusing and prefer to operate either in the hot zone of poetry as communication (saying) or the cool zone of poetry as artefact (making). The recently dominant schools of Formalist criticism appear to have gone in the latter direction. But appearances are a little deceptive. The New Critics, it is true, left...

(The entire section is 6600 words.)

Frederic B. Tromly (essay date fall 1980)

SOURCE: Tromly, Frederic B. “Surrey's Fidelity to Wyatt in ‘Wyatt Resteth Here.’” Studies in Philology 77, no. 4 (fall 1980): 376-87.

[In the following essay, Tromly discusses the importance of Surrey's elegy to Wyatt in understanding Surrey's body of work.]

Surrey's hour seems to have come round (again) at last. In recent years a number of studies have rehabilitated his reputation by removing him from Wyatt's steadily lengthening shadow.1 By dissociating the two poets, Surrey's admirers have made it difficult to continue to regard, or rather disregard, him as merely an incompetent Wyatt. Their insistence on Surrey's separate identity has allowed...

(The entire section is 4634 words.)

S. P. Zitner (essay date autumn 1983)

SOURCE: Zitner, S. P. “Truth and Mourning in a Sonnet by Surrey.” ELH 50, no. 3 (autumn 1983): 509-29.

[In the following essay, Zitner discusses Surrey's elegy to Thomas Clere, focusing particularly on his adaptation of the Italian sonnet form.]

Norfolk sprang thee, Lambeth holds thee dead,
Clere of the County of Cleremont though hight;
Within the wombe of Ormondes race thou bread,
And sawest thy cosine crowned in thy sight.
Shelton for love, Surrey for Lord thou chase:
Ay me, while life did last that league was tender;
Tracing whose steps thou sawest Kelsall blaze,
Laundersey burnt, and battered Bullen render.
At Muttrell gates, hopeles of all recure,
Thine Earle...

(The entire section is 8495 words.)

O. B. Hardison (essay date summer 1986)

SOURCE: Hardison, O. B. “Tudor Humanism and Surrey's Translation of the Aeneid.Studies in Philology 83, no. 3 (summer 1986): 237-60.

[In the following essay, Hardison credits Surrey with the invention of English blank verse.]

One of the more interesting facts about English blank verse is that it was invented. The evidence suggests that it was the result of a self-conscious effort by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, around 1540 to create a vernacular English form equivalent to the dactylic hexameter of classical epic and parallel to unrhymed continental forms such as Italian versi sciolti.

The background of this effort has been...

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Stephen Guy-Bray (essay date June 1995)

SOURCE: Guy-Bray, Stephen. “‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’: The Earl of Surrey and the Duke of Richmond.” English Studies in Canada 21, no. 2 (June 1995): 138-50.

[In the following essay, Guy-Bray contends that “So crewel prison” is not just an elegy, as it is often classified, but also a love poem.]

“So crewell prison” is a useful poem for historians of English poetry: Surrey, always (and now perhaps primarily) associated with technical innovation, is said in this poem and in some others to be beginning the tradition of the English elegy. But this is not the only possible generic description. The classification of “So crewell prison” as an elegy...

(The entire section is 5973 words.)

Further Reading


Bawcutt, Priscilla. “Douglas and Surrey: Translators of Virgil.” In Essays and Studies, edited by Kenneth Muir, pp. 52-67. London: John Murray, 1974.

Examination of the stylistic differences between Gavin Douglas and Surrey in their translations of the Aeneid.

Braekman, Martine. “A Chaucerian ‘Courtly Love Aunter’ by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey.” Neophilologus 79, no. 4 (October 1995): 675-87.

Discussion of “Complaint of a diyng louer” as part of the tradition of the Chaucerian love lyric.

Casady, Edwin R. “A Reinterpretation of Surrey's Character and Actions.”...

(The entire section is 497 words.)