The Courtier Poets: Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
"...the most foolish proud boy that is in England."
Henry Howard was born with royal blood in 1517 as the son of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk. The title of the Earl of Surrey was extended to Henry at birth.
In 1532 Henry married Lady Francis Vere but due to his age was unable to obtain a household until 1535.
At the age of twenty, 1536, Henry witnessed the Anne Boleyn Trials. During this same year he became a war hero when he aided in the supression of the Pilgramage of Grace Rebellion. This rebellion saw northern england nobleman rebel against the rule of King Henry VIII.
Henry's role in the supression of the Rebellion gained his graces at the court of King Henry VIII where he was to perform his role as courtesian.
In 1539 he commanded invasion forces in Norfolk and in 1543 led the siege of Landrecy. The height of his military fame came though in 1545 when he was wounded at the siege of Montreuil.
In 1547 he was charged with treason and was beheaded at the age of thirty.
Prior to Henry sonnets written by the Courtier poets had been primarily influenced by Petrarch. Almost all the sonnets written for the court had two quatrains and a sestet which would look like this: abba abba efg efg, or something similar.
Henry began writing his sonnets as abab cdcd efef gg which resembled Shakespeare's sonnets. So the Earl of Surrey started a new trend in sonnet writing in England. No longer were poets influenced deeply by forms from the Italian Renaissance.
Now we see the sonnets of England arise from the depths of the English court.
"The fancy, which that I have served long"
The fancy, which I have served long,
That hath always been enemy to mine ease,
Seemed of late to rue upon my wrong
And bad me fly the cause of my misease.
And I forthwith did prease out of the throng,
That thought by flight my painful heart to please
Some other way, till I saw faith more strong.
And to myself I said: "Alas, those days
In vain were spent, to run the race so long."
And with that thought I met my guide, that plain
Out of the way wherein I wandered wrong
Brought me amids the hills in base Bullayn,
Where I am now, as restless to remain,
Against my will, full pleased with my pain.
Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey
Henry created a measure called Poulter's measure which he used to write his Psalms while waiting for his execution. Rewriting the Psalms of the bible seemed to be in fashion when a courtier poet was waiting for his execution. Not all the Courtier poets wrote their Psalms in Poulter's measure since Poulter's measure made a poem sound rigid and lacking in passion.
Poulter's measure is a rhyming couplet where the first line is twelve syllables and the second line is fourteen syllables. This measure fit the style of Henry's writing in that he wrote very structured poetry that seemed to lack passion.
An example of Poulter's measure follows from Henry's Psalms:
"I found no wit could pierce so far, Thy holy dooms to know,
And that no mysteries nor doubt could be distrust
Till I come to the holy place, the mansion of the just,
Where I shall see what end Thy justice shall prepare
For such as build on worldly wealth, and dye their colors fair."
Henry's fame though comes from his creation of blank verse. Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter and has been used by Shakespeare and throughout English poetry.
He fell upon blank verse when he decided to translate Virgil's Aeneid. The complete translation is written in blank verse.
What amazes me about the life of Henry Howard the Earl of Surrey is that he was able to play his part in Courtier politics, marry and have a household, become a war hero after fighting in multiple battles, and change the art of poetry all before the age of thirty.
One wonders if he would have lived a longer life what other contributions this amazing man would have left for us.
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