Henry Howard Earl of Surrey “The soote season”

Henry Howard Earl of Surrey was a member of one of the most powerful aristocratic families in England, the Dukes of Norfolk and he would have become the 4th Duke of Norfolk if he had not his head chopped off just 9 days before the death of Henry VIII, thus becoming the king’s last victim. His father, the 3rd Duke narrowly avoided the same fate only because his execution was appointed on the day the king died. The ostensible reason for that was that Henry started to use the royal arms of Edward the Confessor in his coat of arms, which was a provocation, taking into account that the Norfolks were descendants of the kings of England and this act could indicate they would like to become them. The real reason was that the Norfolks were relatives of Henry’s wives no.2 and 5 and they were in conflict with the Seymours, the family of Henry’s wife no. 3. The moment when Catherine Howard lost her head, while the Seymours, as the uncles of the Prince of Wales and future regents were rising in power, the Norfolks were doomed.

But before this untimely end Henry Howard wrote a lot of poetry and in the minds of his contemporaries he was THE poet of the Elizabethan era.  He was a friend of Thomas Wyatt and managed to get him out of his second imprisonment when his cousin Catherine Howard was still alive and in king’s good graces. He introduced what is known as the English sonnet in its classical shape, with the rhyme pattern abab cdcd efef gg (so more rhymes than Wyatt used and alternate, not enclosing). He also introduced blank verse, that is unrhymed iambic pentameter (ten syllables in a line, every second syllable stressed) which was going to become the fundamental verse form in much of English poetry and drama – Shakespeare, Milton and so on. The editor of the NAEL write intriguingly that Howard was not particularly good at traditional love poetry, but his most emotional poems are the ones addressed to his male friends or those in which he impersonates a woman yearning for her lover, so… could he be gay or bi? We have no proofs, of course.

Like Wyatt, Howard translated (or “translated”) a lot of Petrarch’s poetry. “The soote season” (“soote” meaning sweet) is supposed to be a translation of Petrach’s Rima 310, but really, Howard just got the general idea from Petrarch, which is that spring is a happy season, but I am sad. The whole poem is quite different and – dare I say? – better than Petrarch’s. Petrarch’s description of spring is quite banal and laden with lots of mythological allusions. Howard’s sonnet (which is quite restrictive in its form, he uses only two rhymes) is built around the idea that the spring is the time for renewal – animals get new horns, and skins, and felts, and scales (I am not sure if the last one is biologically correct, but let it be). With spring, adds Howard in a fine paradoxical touch, every care decays – and yet my sorrow springs. So bad thing (problem) + bad thing (decay) = good thing, but bad thing (sorrow) + good thing (development) = bad thing. This is a very clumsy analysis and I guess a qualified pragmatist/cognitivist could make much more of this. I just have to add that Petrarch makes clear that his sorrow is caused by the death of his beloved, but Surrey leaves this ambiguous.

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