British and Irish Literature Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Chris Stamatakis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0132


Enjoying the dubious honor in ancestral history of being the last person executed during Henry VIII’s reign, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (b. 1516/17–d. 1547), occupies an unusual place in literary history. Surrey’s now well-established status, with Sir Thomas Wyatt (b. c. 1504–d. 1542), as a pioneer of a new brand of 16th-century poetics rests on a series of apparent paradoxes or contradictions, some intimately bound with the transitional literary, political, and cultural milieu that he inhabited: Surrey’s is a relatively small poetic corpus but one that exerted an immediate influence on English literary culture; his poetry is inescapably nostalgic, relentlessly retrospective as it seeks to recover a lavishly reimagined but unattainable past, and simultaneously innovative, insistently avant-garde in its formal experimentations; his poetics are hybrid in fusing together elegiac despair, unleavened by consolation, with something profoundly defiant that offsets melancholy with the isolationist fervor of personal resilience and national renewal; and his verse is both of the court and beyond it, both rooted in his own time and simultaneously dislocated from it, embodying an anachronistic, outmoded aristocratic idealism. A foremost Henrician aristocrat, a first cousin to two queens (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard), Surrey nonetheless seems to have embraced the comparatively commercial medium of print without objection. In his poems, Surrey (once again like his near-contemporary Wyatt) speaks at times with autobiographical immediacy, as if the narrative action were transposed directly from his own experiences, yet at other times he willfully obfuscates the personal sources that might lie behind his compositions, refracting his poetic voices into fictionalized personas and conventional lyric mouthpieces—the Petrarchan lover yearning for an unattainable or lost beloved in his amatory verse; a solipsistic, imprisoned speaker lamenting past happiness and espousing fortitude and stoicism in his neoclassical epigrams; a vengeful prophet in his biblical paraphrases, and a coruscating gadfly in his satires. This peculiar constellation of poetic and personal attributes has prompted a panoply of literary criticism and historical reflection: for historians, Surrey’s interest partly lies in his genealogical obsession with a receding childhood, a threatened nobility, and the specter of a lost cultural past; his enduring fascination for literary critics partly lies in the other direction, in his influential reach forward into the Elizabethan period as the inventor of not only the so-called Shakespearean or English sonnet but also blank verse in his Aeneid translations, inaugurating a nationalist poetics. Surrey’s perplexing, fascinating oeuvre continues to invite scholarly reconfigurations and reappraisals.

General Overviews

Resurgent interest in Surrey’s life and writings has been sparked by a flurry of historically sensitive literary criticism since the late 1980s. The vogue for new historicist methods drew profitable attention to the interplay, within the Tudor court, between acts of literary production and the impress of political agency and power. Since the turn of the 21st century, an invaluable strand of scholarly enquiry has sought to recuperate mid-Tudor literary culture from undeserved critical obscurity. General accounts of Surrey’s verse tend to conform to one of two types: they either look backward to a literary, historical, and cultural past; or look sideways, placing Surrey’s writings in the context of, or in friction with, the literary activities of his contemporaries. Both kinds of portrait usefully point to the inherently insecure, anxious, ungovernable voices that resound throughout his poetic corpus. Addressing Surrey’s apparent nostalgia for an anterior aristocratic preeminence in his classical and scriptural translations, Hiscock 2011 combines close readings of selected elegiac poems with an invocation of Tudor cultural paradigms that consider the burdens of the past, especially in constructions of the early modern poetic self. Drawing on some of the same thematic nexuses established by Davis 1974 and still current within literary criticism on Surrey, Sessions 1986 represents an accessible monograph pitched toward general and undergraduate readers, seeking to establish Surrey’s reputation as a formal innovator and, in slightly sweeping terms, as the “first truly humanist English poet” (p. 24). Edwards 1979 offers a brisk, convenient overview of Surrey’s distinctive formal achievements, set in an evolving literary history. An important but provocative reading that is partly post-structuralist and partly new historicist in method is ventured by Crewe 1990, although the selectivity and bias of this study have been corrected by more balanced readings of Surrey’s oeuvre by Heale 1998 (surveying the literary, political, and religious pressures that shaped Surrey’s poetic outputs) and Heale 2010 (an ideal starting point for general readers and undergraduates, contextualizing Surrey’s verse within Henrician literary culture and usefully placing his poems within emergent Tudor genres and literary traditions).

  • Crewe, Jonathan V. “The Suicidal Poetics of the Earl of Surrey.” In Trials of Authorship: Anterior Forms and Poetic Reconstruction from Wyatt to Shakespeare. By Jonathan V. Crewe, 48–78. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

    Controversial reading of Surrey’s “suicidal” poetics. Draws anachronistically on German Romantic terminology (“Selbstmord,” “Liebestod”), arguing for an interplay of Germanic and Latin strands in Surrey’s oeuvre. Contends that Surrey “wilfully embraced failure” (p. 51) and that his melancholic, alienated speakers are denied “a compensatory or therapeutic poetics” (p. 69), forever trapped in stunted cycles.

  • Davis, Walter R. “Contexts in Surrey’s Poetry.” English Literary Renaissance 4.1 (1974): 40–55.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6757.1974.tb01289.x

    Introductory, syncretic overview of extant criticism, rather dated in the 21st century. Ably sketches some useful frameworks for interpreting Surrey’s verse: the poetically fashioned self set against a spatial, natural context; a nostalgic yearning for an irrecoverable past (a temporal context); an illusion of formal harmony and balance understood in terms of literary tradition.

  • Edwards, A. S. G. “Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey.” In British Writers. Vol. 1, William Langland to The English Bible. Edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert, 113–120. New York: Scribner, 1979.

    General survey reappraising Surrey’s place in English literary history, considered in conjunction most directly with Sir Thomas Wyatt. Broad discussion of Surrey’s formal achievements in prosodic innovation and his refinement of an elegant, unadorned style.

  • Heale, Elizabeth. Wyatt, Surrey and Early Tudor Poetry. London: Longman, 1998.

    Judicious and reliable appraisal of Surrey’s poetry in the context of Henrician courtly writing. Useful biographical account of Surrey’s court service and outmoded aristocratic idealism, related to the desire for chivalric allegiance in Surrey’s amatory verse. Usefully delineates the oscillation of Surrey’s biblical speakers between despondency and sincere repentance.

  • Heale, Elizabeth. “Sixteenth-Century Poetry: Skelton, Wyatt, and Surrey.” In The Cambridge History of English Poetry. Edited by Michael O’Neill, 115–135. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521883061.009

    Succinct but formidable survey of Surrey’s literary activities contextualized within contemporary poetics (Skelton’s and Wyatt’s) and the historical, social, and cultural changes shaping the Henrician court. Incorporates sensitive close readings of Surrey’s formal strategies, plain style, and prosody; his ventriloquism of female speakers; and thematic matrices of faithfulness and loss.

  • Hiscock, Andrew. “‘To Seke the Place Where I My Self Hadd Lost’: Acts of Memory in the Poetry of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey.” In Reading Memory in Early Modern Literature. By Andrew Hiscock, 37–64. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    Establishing the foundational centrality of memory in 16th-century humanist teaching, Hiscock relates Surrey’s interest in the promptings of memory to a broader cultural fixation with the legacy of the classical, mythological past. Usefully discusses Surrey’s poetic, editorial “production” of the past in his lyric grappling with political and erotic desire.

  • Sessions, William A. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

    Systematic, sound introduction that usefully historicizes Surrey’s poetry, although occasionally overstates his literary and cultural preeminence. Goes beyond a mere biographical survey to offer detailed analysis and formal categorization of Surrey’s oeuvre, helpfully summarizing contemporary critical trends. Takes Surrey’s “When raging love” as the locus of his poetics of translation.

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