As a translator and original poet, Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, prepared the way for a number of important developments in English poetry. His translations and paraphrases are not slavishly literal; they are re-creations of classical and continental works in terms meaningful to Englishmen. He naturalized several literary forms—the sonnet, elegy, epigram, and satire—and showed English poets what could be done with various stanzas, metrical patterns, and rhyme schemes, including terza rima, ottava rima, and poulter’s measure. He invented the English or Shakespearean sonnet (three quatrains and a couplet) and set another precedent by using the form for subjects other than love. His poems exerted considerable influence, for they circulated in manuscript for some time before they were printed. Forty of them appear in Songes and Sonettes (better known as Tottel’s Miscellany), a collection of more than 270 works which saw nine editions by 1587 and did much to establish iambic meter in English poetry. Surrey shares with Sir Thomas Wyatt the distinction of having introduced the Petrarchan mode of amatory verse in England.
His innovations in poetic diction and prosody have had more lasting significance. Surrey refined English poetry of aureate diction, the archaic and ornate language cultivated by fifteenth century writers. His elegant diction formed the basis of poetic expression until well into the eighteenth century.
His greatest achievement is his demonstration of the versatility and naturalness in English of the iambic pentameter line. Surrey invented blank verse, which later poets brought to maturity. The metrical regularity of much of his rhymed verse (a regularity perhaps enhanced by Tottel’s editor) had a stabilizing effect on English prosody, which had long been in a chaotic state. In The Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham hailed Wyatt and Surrey as “the first reformers of our English meetre and stile,” for they “pollished our rude & homely maner of vulgar poesie.” Until the present century Surrey’s smoothness was generally preferred to Wyatt’s rougher versification.
Surrey’s essential quality, a concern with style, informed his poetry, his life, and the Tudor court of which he was a brilliant representative. Consistently as a poet and frequently as a courtier, he epitomized learning and grace; for his countrymen, he was an exemplar of culture.
Childs, Jessie. Henry VIII’s Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2007. Discusses the poet’s life in detail, in particular his relationship with Henry VIII.
Heale, Elizabeth. Wyatt, Surrey, and Early Tudor Poetry. New York: Longman, 1998. An indispensable resource that brings together critical analysis of the early Tudor poets. Those who would study Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare’s sonnets will benefit from the reading of these wonderful authors.
Lines, Candace. “The Erotic Politics of Grief in Surrey’s ’So crewell prison.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 46, no. 1 (2006): 1-26. Provides a close examination of Surrey’s well-known poem, focusing on his expression of grief.
Sessions, William A. Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life. 1999. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Sessions’s narrative combines historical scholarship with close readings of poetic texts and Tudor paintings to reveal the unique life of the first Renaissance courtier and a poet who wrote and created radically new forms.
Spearing, A. C. Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. After discussing Renaissance classicism in Surrey’s poetry, Spearing proceeds to extended analyses of three poems: two epitaphs on Sir Thomas Wyatt and “So crewell prison,” the poem about Surrey’s imprisonment at Windsor.
Thomson, Patricia. “Wyatt and Surrey.” In English Poetry and Prose, 1540-1674, edited by Christopher Ricks. 1970. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 1993. Thomson first compares Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt to John Skelton, whose poetry was primarily late medieval, then discusses Surrey and particularly Wyatt as inheritors of the Petrarchan tradition.
Walker, Greg. Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Contains a chapter on Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt that examines their experiences writing under Henry VIII and the innovative forms that Surrey produced.