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?
Three years later Surrey served as the Captain-General in Boulogne, from where he wrote repeatedly to the King to urge him to continue the expensive and futile campaign against the French. He was rebuked for displaying himself dangerously and provocatively on the bridge of the fortress in Boulogne. Despite – or perhaps because of – his conscious displays of honour, his unpaid and underfed men fled during a raid on a French supply party at St Etienne, and he returned to England in disgrace. He was subsequently imprisoned and executed for having quartered the arms of Edward the Confessor with his own (something he was almost certainly entitled to do, so long as the arms carried ‘three labels silver’ to distinguish them from those of the heir to the throne). This was taken to imply a treasonable aspiration to the crown. Henry VIII, ageing and dwindling in everything but bulk, annotated the charges against him: he clearly felt that a Howard protectorate would endanger the future of his son, Edward VI, and that Surrey should be done away with.
So, it appears, did many reformers. Shortly before his final imprisonment, Surrey had a row with George Blage, one of the friends who had accompanied him on his night out with the stonebows, in the course of which Blage said that if a Howard protectorate were established over the boy king Edward, the Prince ‘would be but evil taught’. Surrey’s sister, who testified against him at his trial, wished to imply that he was backward-looking on religious matters and claimed that he had erected an altar at Boulogne. And yet, in the Tower, Surrey composed psalm paraphrases of a distinctly Protestant colour. In Psalm 88, after lamenting that ‘such as I have held full dere have set my frendshipp light’ (Blage was not the only friend to abandon him), he appealed to God:
Wherefore dost thow forbeare, in the defence
To shewe such tokens of thy power, in sight
of Adams lyne,
Whereby eche feble hart with fayth might be
That in the mouthe of thy elect thy mercyes
might be spredd?
The emphasis on ‘fayth’ and the ‘elect’ suggests that Surrey had taken over from his hero Wyatt some of the Protestant vocabulary which is found in the older poet’s psalm paraphrases. This vocabulary, however, also feeds a religious version of Surrey’s singularity: alone, he asks God to vindicate his solitary righteousness.
There are so many conflicting aspects of Surrey’s character and life that it is extremely hard to write a biography of him: did his religious position change from altar-building in Boulogne to inner Protestant penitence in the Tower? How does his insistent regard for the status of his family relate to poems which so often appear to be inward, and are so often concerned with the experiences of isolated women? Surrey’s life attracted more than its share of myths in the later 16th century, making it even harder to interpret. He wrote a single sonnet to ‘Geraldine’ (Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald) which dwells in a quasi-heraldic manner on her geographical and dynastic origins. It concludes:
Hunsdon did furst present her to myn eyen:
Bryght is her hew, and Geraldine she hight;
Hampton me tawght to wishe her furst for myne,
And Windsor, alas, doth chase me from her sight.
Bewty of kind, her vertues from above;
Happy ys he that may obtaine her love.
The poem conveys a biographical history by taking resonant place names associated with royal palaces (Hunsdon, Hampton, Windsor) and charging them with nostalgia. It is, I think, the only piece of English verse to give place names something of the power they have in Dante’s momentary biography of La Pia (‘Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma’ – ‘Siena made me, Maremma unmade me’). It also gives away just enough biographical detail to have been blown into a myth about Surrey’s hopeless love for Geraldine. The sonnet was entitled ‘Description and praise of his love Geraldine’ in Richard Tottel’s Songes and Sonnettes written by the ryght honourable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and others (1557). On the strength of this, Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller turned the relationship between Surrey and Geraldine into a full-scale send-up of a Petrarchan romance, in which Surrey became the infatuated Petrarchist, plastering the walls of Geraldine’s birthplace with sonnets and declaring that ‘Geraldine was the soule of heauen, sole daughter and heire to primus motor.’
Nashe sends up Surrey because by 1594 Surrey had acquired a reputation as the originator of high Elizabethan poetry, and Nashe liked to poke fun at everything high. Tottel’s miscellany had established the myth of Surrey as the more or less lone reformer and transformer of English verse. Tottel did not print any of Surrey’s Biblical paraphrases, nor any of the translations of Books II and IV of the Aeneid. The ‘honourable style’ of Tottel’s Surrey is politely Petrarchan, revelling in solitary passion, lamenting the death of the Stoic sage Sir Thomas Wyatt, and feeding, ultimately, the view that Surrey was, as Thomas Warton put it, ‘the first English classical poet’. (This remark Sessions mistakenly attributes to Thomas’s brother Joseph. It is one of a number of slips: he also confers a knighthood on plain John Harington of Stepney, presumably confusing him with his more famous son, Sir John of Kelston.) Tottel’s Surrey is the chief source of George Puttenham’s description in 1589 of ‘a new company of courtly makers’ to whom he attributes the start of a new age in English poetry. This view of Surrey fuelled an extremely durable vision of the English literary Renaissance as a male, aristocratic phenomenon, which depended for its origins on courtly imitators of Italianate forms.
Sessions’s biography assails many of the myths surrounding Surrey. He reads the sonnet to Geraldine not as a love poem but as a dynastic intervention, designed to show her lineage and ensure her marriageability. Mount Surrey, the house which Surrey was building at his death, was not, Sessions shows, the neo-classical mansion it is often supposed to have been, but a standard Gothic edifice with battlements, though it also had a sumptuously appointed interior. However, for all the riches of its archival research, Sessions’s biography still succumbs to the chief myth. It argues that Surrey was programmatically committed to renovating the English language and the English aristocracy. From 1533, when he visited Francis I’s new palace and gallery at Fontainebleau in the company of Henry Fitzroy, Sessions argues, Surrey perceived the historical destiny of art as the agent of moral and political renovation. It is surely right to attach revolutionary importance to the moment in 1542 when Surrey printed his elegy on Wyatt: the appearance in print of an elegy on a commoner by the son of a duke was one of the most extraordinary indications of the prestige of vernacular verse in the entire 16th century. But (and Sessions downplays this fact) the volume was printed anonymously, and does not appear to have been part of a deliberate campaign of Surrey’s to use print to renovate English writing. So many of Surrey’s poems are occasional – two on the death of Wyatt, one on the death of his squire Thomas Clere, several on his imprisonments – that to see a programme behind them is decidedly risky. Indeed many of the poems are fascinatingly hard to resolve into a single purpose, or to assign to a single date. The translation of Aeneid II and IV, for instance, Sessions assigns to the 1540s and regards as an attempt to bring about a ‘renovatio of English blood nobility’. Neither of these claims is safe. Surrey’s translation is undatable, and attempts many things. It makes extensive use of Gavin Douglas’s translation into Middle Scots, on which it imposes an epigrammatic English style. This can be read in a number of ways: it may indicate a wish to add a literary conquest to the military victory over the Scots at Flodden (where Surrey’s grandfather had presided over the massacre of a large part of the Scottish nobility, including several of Douglas’s immediate family); or it might mark a more inclusive desire to adapt northern literary traditions into an extended ‘Britain’ (another place name which Surrey frequently uses at moments of high emotion). Alternatively the translation may be a working-up of a schoolboy humanist’s classroom exercises, or an experiment in anglicising Italian versi sciolti attempted in the early 1530s. Limiting the poem to a single aim and a single speculative date forecloses one of the chief delights of reading Surrey, which is that we almost never know for sure which circumstances the poems address or what exactly they are trying to achieve.
Then there is the male thing. Sessions is keen on Surrey’s masculinity, as when he describes the last known portrait: ‘The shoes and legs are posed, as though only for an instant, before the young man sprints forth again, full codpiece hanging loose in its nest of counterpointing diagonals and stud-heads of swords and daggers.’ That interest in the codpiece leads Sessions consistently to overstate the originary force of the poet, and to understate his receptiveness to female influence. Sessions claims, for instance, that Surrey was the chief force behind the Devonshire Manuscript, one of the most complex poetic collaborations of the period. The manuscript includes poems by Wyatt, Surrey and other courtly poets, as well as signatures and jottings by a number of women associated with Surrey. Mary Shelton (who was a lover of Surrey’s squire Thomas Clere) played some part in the genesis of the manuscript. It also seems to have passed through the hands of Lady Mary Douglas, whose betrothal to Surrey’s uncle in 1536 had raised such fears about the succession. It is impossible to know for sure whether or not these women composed any of the poems in the manuscript – indeed, the culture of collaborative work and creative transcription which often lies behind courtly miscellanies of this kind raises serious questions about what it is to ‘compose’ at all. But one can be certain that the manuscript testifies quite as much to the literary interests of a variety of aristocratic women and men as to the determination of the Earl of Surrey to ‘invent and encourage a new type of English discourse’.
Surrey was and was not an originator. His skill lay in catching a mood or style and sharpening its edges. His sonnets chisel something clear and hard from the perplexity of Wyatt’s experiments in the form; his psalm paraphrases catch hold of Wyatt’s and build on their mood of resentment; and his elegies for Wyatt attribute to the older poet the kind of Horatian equanimity that Wyatt often claimed to seek, but always failed to attain. Surrey catches phrases and thoughts from others (Gavin Douglas, for example) and firms them towards epigram. So he wrote a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes, probably during or shortly before his final imprisonment, which contains a violent blow against the throne:
I saw a royal throne whereas that Justice
should have sit;
Instead of whom I saw, with fierce and cruel mode,
Where Wrong was set, that bloody beast,
that drunk the guiltless blood.
A year before Surrey’s imprisonment, in 1546, the Protestant martyr Anne Askew had written strikingly similar lines (‘I saw a ryall trone/Where Jutcye shuld have sytt/But in her stede was one/Of modye cruell wytt’). There is no way of being sure of the direction in which influence flows here, since there is no means of dating Surrey’s poem with any certainty. Sessions assumes that the influence passes from aristocratic male to female commoner. There is, however, a very good chance that Surrey, a habitual smoother of others’ lines, and a habitual hearer of the voice of female complaint, tweaked his lines from Askew’s. There might have been point and possibly capital to be gained for Surrey in doing so: he dedicates two of the psalm paraphrases, which are very likely to have been written during the last imprisonment, to Blage and Sir Anthony Denny, both of whom were reformers. He may well have confusedly thought that those in power in the Privy Council in 1547 would welcome a Biblical paraphrase which echoed Anne Askew, since Edward Seymour’s wife had reputedly given her ten shillings during her imprisonment. The Biblical paraphrases are among the best of Surrey’s works, because they try to achieve a variety of conflicting things at once: they are part outpourings of aristocratic rage, part petitionary confessions, and part efforts to catch hold of the religious and aesthetic tastes of members of a Privy Council with which Surrey was rapidly losing touch. Overdetermined with conflicting ambitions, they show Surrey losing control over his verse, and collapsing (in the paraphrase of Psalm 55 which is probably the last of them) into deeply obscure unrhymed hexameters.
If Surrey’s verse does not have a single main origin or aim, and if that is partly what makes it good, then something large follows – something that might enable us to tell a slightly different story about the origins of the English Renaissance from the one invented by Tottel and Puttenham. For Sessions, as for Tottel and Puttenham, Surrey’s importance derives from his formal innovations, and his attempts to rejuvenate English culture from within one of the most powerful families in England. This leads to a view of the English Renaissance which is dominantly aristocratic, only secondarily motivated by religion, and dominantly male. What if this picture is wrong? What if Surrey’s importance derives from his ability to refine the labours of others, to adopt and absorb the voices of women and of conquered Scots, to write poems of a religious but unfocused zeal which gain literary importance from the plurality and confusion of their motives? What if part of the strength of these poems derives from our uncertainty as to when and why and to whom they were written? He would not cease to be a figure of major importance if this view of him were correct: he would remain central, but he would be central to a picture of the English Renaissance which would be less Italianate, more theologically complicated, and more dependent on collaborative labour than the picture Sessions paints.