Henry Earl of Surrey Howard Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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.