Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by John Churton Collins
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (15171547)
[Henry Howard was the eldest son of Thomas Earl of Surrey, by his second wife, the Lady Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The date and place of his birth are alike unknown. It probably occurred in 1517. He became Earl of Surrey on the accession of his father to the dukedom of Norfolk in 1524. The incidents of his early life are buried in obscurity; the incidents of his later life rest on evidence rarely trustworthy and frequently apocryphal. He was beheaded on Tower Hill January 21, 1547, nominally on a charge of high treason, really in consequence of having fallen a victim to a Court intrigue, the particulars of which it is now impossible to unravel. With regard to the chronology of his various poems we have nothing to guide us. Though they were extensively circulated in manuscript during his lifetime, they were not printed till June 1557, when they made their appearance, together with Wyatts poems and several fugitive pieces by other authors, in Tottels Miscellany.]
THE WORKS of Surrey, though not so numerous as those of his friend Wyatt, are of a very varied character. They consist of sonnets, of miscellaneous poems in different measures, of lyrics, of elegies, of translations, of Scriptural paraphrases, of two long versions from Virgil. The distinctive feature of Surreys genius is its ductility; its characteristic qualities are grace, vivacity, pathos, picturesqueness. He had the temperament of a true poet, refinement, sensibility, a keen eye for the beauties of nature, a quick and lively imagination, great natural powers of expression. His tone is pure and lofty, and his whole writings breathe that chivalrous spirit which still lingered among the satellites of the eighth Henry. His diction is chaste and perspicuous, and though it bears all the marks of careful elaboration it has no trace of stiffness or pedantry. His verse is so smooth, and at times so delicately musical, that Warton questioned whether in these qualities at least our versification has advanced since Surrey tuned it for the first time. Without the learning of Wyatt, his literary skill is far greater. His taste is exquisite. His love poetry, which is distinguished by touches of genuine feeling, is modelled for the most part on the Sonnetti and Ballate of Petrarch, though it has little of Petrarchs frigid puerility and none of his metaphysical extravagance. The Laura of Surrey is the fair Geraldine. We may perhaps suspect the existence of some less shadowy object. As a lyrical poet, when he permits himself to follow his own bent he is easy and graceful. His elegiac verses and his epitaph on Clere have been deservedly praised for their pathos, dignity, and terseness, and his translation from Martial makes us regret that he has not left us more in the same vein. His versions from Virgil we are not inclined to rank so highly as Warton does, but they are interesting as being the first English versions from the poets of antiquity worthy of the name, and as furnishing us with the earliest specimens of that verse which was to become the omnipotent instrument of Shakespeare and Milton. As a sonneteer he follows closely in the footsteps of Petrarch, though he is not, like Wyatt, a servile copyist, and he is entitled to the high praise not only of being the first who introduced the sonnet into our language, but of having made that difficult form of composition the obedient interpreter of a poets feelings and of a poets fancies. His most unsuccessful pieces are his Scriptural paraphrases and the poems written in Alexandrines, though one of these, The Complaint of a Dying Lover, is valuable as being, after Henrysons Robine and Makyne, the first pastoral poem in British literature.