- Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life by W.A. Sessions
Oxford, 448 pp, £60.00, March 1999, ISBN 0 19 818624 X
Although Surrey’s surviving poems can be read in an afternoon, they represent a major achievement for someone whose life was cut short (literally: he was beheaded) at the age of 30. He invented blank verse, as well as the ‘Shakespearean’ form of the sonnet. His poems habitually dwell on isolation: they adopt the voices of Petrarchan lovers brooding on an inner hurt, prisoners lamenting past happiness, or psalmists threatening destruction to their enemies. The most powerful of them adopt the voices of women left by their lovers or husbands. ‘O happy dames’ is spoken by a woman who is watching the sea and waiting for her lover:
When other lovers in armes acrosse
Rejoyce their chief delight,
Drowned in teares to mourne my losse
I stand the bitter night
In my window, where I may see
Before the windes how the cloudes flee.
Lo what a mariner love hath made me!
As others embrace, she looks out of the window, a mariner just in a poetic conceit. Surrey is the only early Tudor poet to explore this form of feminine pathos – waiting and desiring alone – and it runs through the poems he composed in male voices too: he often imagines a background of conviviality against which he alone laments a lost friend or an unattainable lover. If a poem describes a background of general contentment shared by all ‘save I’, then you can be fairly sure it has some debt to Surrey. Aloneness is his stock-in-trade.
His life was marked by a correspondingly singular eminence. He was almost kingly in status. His first cousins included two queens (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard). He spent four years of his youth as the companion of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy. Howard blood was blue enough to pose a threat to the succession, as Surrey’s uncle Thomas discovered when he was imprisoned in 1536 after a rash engagement to Lady Margaret Douglas, who also had royal blood. Surrey was unimaginably grand, but was also not unjustly described by John Barlowe, Dean of Westbury as ‘the most foolish proud boy that is in England’. His actions often tread the dividing line between brattishness and defiant aristocratic singularity. In March 1543 he was hauled up before the Privy Council for having eaten meat in Lent, and for having gone on the rampage with a ‘stonebow’ (a sort of early modern catapult) with some of his friends of a reforming persuasion. One witness at his trial was his landlady Mistress Millicent Arundel, who, like Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly, was clearly keen to boast that she had an almost royal nobleman in her house. She thought Surrey’s father, the Duke of Norfolk, might become king if Henry VIII died without a male heir (‘if ought should come to the King but good, his father should stand for king’), and declared that above his bed were arms ‘very like the King’s’. It was the first sign that Surrey’s ambition might extend even as far as the throne. He wrote his most perplexing poem, ‘London, hast thow accused me’, on the occasion of his imprisonment. It transforms Surrey’s habitual posture of isolation into a lone voice of militant zeal, which accuses the citizens of London of Babylonian pride and avarice and threatens them with destruction:
The flame of wrath shall on thee fall;
With famyne and pest lamentably
Stricken shalbe thy lecheres all;
Thy prowd towers and turretes hye,
Enemyse to God, beat stone from stone;
Thyne idolles burnt, that wrought iniquitie.
The poem taps into the zeal of Protestant reformers, but also running through it is the resentful voice of a young nobleman who got caught and who simply cannot believe that a Howard could ever be in the wrong. ‘London, hast thow accused me’ has an incredulous stress on the words ‘me’ and ‘thou’: how could you, you idolatrous, lecherous commoners, blame me for smashing a few windows?
Vol. 21 No. 23 · 25 November 1999
In his review of W.A. Session’s Life of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Colin Burrow persuasively argues that the sources from which Surrey’s poetry sprang are to be found among those who contributed to that key document, the Devonshire Manuscript; that Surrey was not necessarily an originator, but that his genius lies in ‘his ability to refine the labour of others’; that, in particular, he was ‘a habitual hearer of the voice of female complaint’, and that some of his most powerful poems ‘adopt and absorb the voices of women’ (LRB, 11 November). Thus, in commenting on the possible contributions of Mary Shelton and Lady Margaret Douglas to the Devonshire Manuscript, that ‘most complex poetic collaboration’, Burrow says, correctly, that ‘it is impossible to know for sure whether or not these women composed any of the poems.’ His concluding comments as to the relationship of this problem of authorship to our ‘picture of the English Renaissance’ raise some fascinating questions, but they all, it seems to me, fall short of raising the fundamental query: what if Surrey is not the author of all of the works attributed to him?
Uncertainty about the authorship of the poems in the Devonshire Manuscript should not, then, lead us to fall back on the ‘it must have been Surrey’ assumption which Burrow makes in his conclusion. ‘O happy dames’, for instance, ‘is spoken by a woman’. Could it just as well have been written by a woman? If this possibility is accepted, then Surrey’s sister, Mary Howard, briefly married to Henry Fitzroy, the King’s illegitimate son, and intimate of Surrey, could be a candidate for authorship of that magnificent poem. She was part of the courtly group which created the Devonshire Manuscript, and she knew all about the position of women left by their lovers or husbands. There is a remarkable similarity between the handwriting of her letters and that of ‘O happy dames’. Might the brat be taken down a peg or two on behalf of his sister, and the search for the origins of the English Renaissance at least focus a little attention on the ladies?
Vol. 21 No. 24 · 9 December 1999
I was under the impression that it was Arthur Golding who devised the sonnet form, not the Earl of Surrey, as Colin Burrow asserts (LRB, 11 November).
Vol. 22 No. 5 · 2 March 2000
The essence of Colin Burrow’s review of Henry Howard, The Poet Earl of Surrey (LRB, 11 November 1999), is that the author, W.A. Sessions, makes poor use of his archival research. Burrow himself, however, commits many errors of fact. I confine myself to a few examples. His statement that ‘Howard blood was blue enough to pose a threat to the succession’ misses the point. Surrey’s half-uncle Thomas had no claim to the throne worth mentioning: he was just one of the many descendants of Edward I, but not of Edward III. His secret marriage or engagement to Lady Margaret Douglas (whom Burrow later calls Mary) was dangerous entirely because of her royal blood. Burrow says that Surrey’s landlady Millicent Arundel predicted that his father, the Duke of Norfolk, might become king when she maintained that Norfolk ‘should stand for king’. The OED is quite clear on the term ‘standfor’. Definition 71.h: ‘To represent, be in place of, take the place of, do duty for’, while definitions 71.a-g and i-l clearly show that the basic concept here is ‘substitute’. In other words, Mrs Arundel meant that Norfolk might become Lord Protector if Henry died, which makes good sense as Norfolk was the premier nobleman. Burrow says that Mrs Arundel said that the arms on Surrey’s bed were ‘very like the King’s’. She didn’t say that – her maid Alice Flaner did. And Flaner showed her ignorance of such matters by referring to Surrey as a peer.
Later, Burrow says that Surrey returned to England in disgrace after his men fled at St Estienne. St Estienne certainly played a part in Surrey’s recall, but almost three months, which included a victory by Surrey, lay between the two events, and virtually no one at the time, not even Surrey’s enemy Elis Gruffydd, claimed that the first event led to the second. Burrow seems not to know the intervening events, particularly the machinations of Surrey’s enemies at court. He gets credit for asserting that Surrey ‘almost certainly’ had the right to use St Edward’s arms, but then flops by saying that Surrey was required to use three silver labels to distinguish his use from the heir to the throne’s. The silver labels are the heir apparent’s mark that differentiates him from his father, who uses the arms without a mark of difference. Surrey’s indictment says that he used St Edward’s arms with three silver labels – that is, with the heir apparent’s mark of difference.