An aristocrat with a humanistic education, Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, considered literature a pleasant diversion. As a member of the Tudor court, he was encouraged to display his learning, wit, and eloquence by writing love poems and translating continental and classical works. The poet who cultivated an elegant style was admired and imitated by his peers. Poetry was not considered a medium for self-expression. In the production of literature, as in other polite activities, there were conventions to be observed. Even the works that seem to have grown out of Surrey’s personal experience also have roots in classical, Christian, Italian, or native traditions. Surrey is classical in his concern for balance, decorum, fluency, and restraint. These attributes are evident throughout his work—the amatory lyrics, elegies, didactic verses, translations, and biblical paraphrases.
Surrey produced more than two dozen amatory poems. A number of these owe something to Petrarch and other continental poets. The Petrarchan qualities of his work, as well as those of his successors, should not be exaggerated, however, for Tudor and Elizabethan poets were also influenced by native tradition and by rhetorical treatises which encouraged the equating of elegance and excellence. Contemporaries admired the fluency and eloquence which made Surrey, like Petrarch, a worthy model. His sonnet beginning “From Tuscan cam my ladies worthi race,” recognized in his own time as polite verse, engendered the romantic legend that he served the Fair Geraldine (Elizabeth Fitzgerald, b. 1528?), but his love poems are now recognized as literary exercises of a type common in Renaissance poetry.
Surrey’s courtly lovers complain of wounds; they freeze and burn, sigh, weep, and despair—yet continue to serve Love. Representative of this mode is “Love that doth raine and live within my thought,” one of his five translations or adaptations of sonnets by Petrarch. The poem develops from a military conceit: The speaker’s mind and heart are held captive by Love, whose colors are often displayed in his face. When the desired lady frowns, Love retreats to the heart and hides there, leaving the unoffending servant alone, “with shamfast looke,” to suffer for his lord’s sake. Uninterested in the moral aspects of this situation, Surrey makes nothing of the paradox of Love as conqueror and coward. He does not suggest the lover’s ambivalence or explore the lady’s motives. Wyatt, whose translation of the same sonnet begins “The longe love, that in my thought doeth harbor,” indicates (as Petrarch does) that the lady asks her admirer to become a better man. Surrey’s speaker, taught only to “love and suffre paine,” gallantly concludes, “Sweet is the death that taketh end by love.”
The point is not that Surrey’s sonnet should be more like Wyatt’s but that in this poem and in many of his lyrics, Surrey seems less concerned with the complexity of an experience than with his manner of presenting it. Most of the lines are smooth and regularly iambic, although there are five initial trochees. The poem’s matter is carefully accommodated to its form. The first quatrain deals with Love, the second with the lady, and the third with the lover’s plight. His resolve is summarized in the couplet: Despite his undeserved suffering, he will be loyal. The sonnet is balanced and graceful, pleasing by virtue of its musical qualities and intellectual conceit.
Some of the longer poems do portray the emotions of courtly lovers. The speaker in “When sommer toke in hand the winter to assail” observes (as several of Surrey’s lovers do) that nature is renewed in spring, while he alone continues to be weak and hopeless. Casting off his despondency, he curses and defies Love. Then, realizing the gravity of his offense, he asks forgiveness and is told by the god that he can atone only by greater suffering. Now “undone for ever more,” he offers himself as a “miror” for all lovers: “Strive not with love, for if ye do, it will ye thus befall.” Lacking the discipline of the sonnet form, this poem in poulter’s measure seems to sprawl. Surrey’s amatory verse is generally most successful when he focuses on a relatively simple situation or emotion. “When sommer toke in hand the winter to assail,” not his best work, is representative in showing his familiarity with native poetry: It echoes Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1382) and describes nature in a manner characteristic of English poets. In seven other love poems, Surrey describes nature in sympathy with or in contrast to the lover’s condition.
A woman’s perspective
At a time when most amatory verse was written from the male perspective, Surrey assumed a woman’s voice in three of his lyrics. The speaker in “Gyrtt in my giltlesse gowne” defends herself against a charge of craftiness pressed by a male courtier in a companion poem beginning “Wrapt in my carelesse cloke.” Accused of encouraging men she does not care for, the lady compares herself to Susanna, who was slandered by corrupt elders. Remarking that her critic himself practices a crafty strategy—trying to ignite a woman’s passion by feigning indifference—she asserts that she, like her prototype, will be protected against lust and lies. This pair of poems, if disappointing because Surrey has chosen not to probe more deeply into the behavior and emotions generated by the game of courtly love, demonstrates the poet’s skill in presenting a speaker in a clearly defined setting or situation. His finest lyrics may fairly be called dramatic.
Two other monologues, “O happy dames, that may embrace” and “Good ladies, ye that have your pleasure in exyle,” are spoken by women lamenting the absence of their beloved lords. They may have been written for Surrey’s wife while he was directing the siege of Boulogne. Long separations troubled him, but his requests to the Privy Council for permission to bring his family to France were denied. After an exordium urging her female audience to “mourne with [her] awhyle,” the narrator of “Good ladies” describes tormenting dreams of her “sweete lorde” in danger and at play with “his lytle sonne” (Thomas Howard, oldest of the Surreys’ five children, was born in 1536). The immediate occasion for this poem, however personal, is consciously literary: The lady, a sorrowful “wight,” burns like a courtly lover when her lord is absent, comforted only by the expectation of his return and reflection that “I feele by sower, how sweete is felt the more” (the sweet-sour antithesis was a favorite with courtly poets). Despite the insistent iambic meter characteristic of poulter’s measure, one can almost hear a voice delivering these lines. In the best of his love poetry, Surrey makes new wholes of traditional elements.
(The entire section is 2833 words.)