Colin Burrow

  • 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?

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