W. A. Sessions. Henry Howard, The Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1999. 464 pp. ISBN 0 19 818624x.

Michael Ullyot
University of Toronto

Ullyot, Michael. "Review of W. A. Sessions, Henry Howard, The Poet Earl of Surrey." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 19.1-6<URL:

  1. In this first comprehensive biography of the Earl of Surrey in 450 years, William Sessions seems determined to make up for lost time. Having written the authoritative study of Surrey's humanism and poetic techniques nearly fifteen years ago, Sessions now turns his attention to the life and historical context that gave rise to Surrey's innovative lyrics, elegies, translations, and psalm paraphrases. Both the poet's life and work are considered, Sessions writes, at the centre of converging or 'cross-pollinating' disciplines: aesthetic, rhetorical, and theological. Sessions weaves these materials into an exhaustive and densely-footnoted biography, as remarkable for its ambition as for its resounding success.

  2. Had Surrey never written a line of poetry, his life would still be worth recounting. By the time of his execution in 1547 he had been appointed Henry VIII's Lieutenant General in Boulogne, fathered five children, and served several prison terms for minor offences -- all while finding the time to invent blank verse and the English sonnet. He met with official disfavour after his spectacular military failure at St. Etienne in 1546, a crucial stumble in Henry's campaign to annex the territory. With a nimble mind and able pen, Surrey had thus far survived this era of religious reform and an uneasy succession, but this particular defeat was the opportunity his enemies at court were awaiting. His life, following a narrative worthy of the Mirror for Magistrates, ended with a forced march and swift execution.

  3. As Sessions tells the story of Surrey's ancestors, fighting alongside Richard III at Bosworth and later restoring their prominence (and dukedom) at Flodden in 1513, the poet's perilous intimacy with the politics of the realm seems an inherited trait. So it may have appeared to his cousins Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn. The biography then turns to extra-familial influences, including Surrey's friendship with Henry Fitzroy, the Earl of Richmond, for whom he would invent the English sonnet in his Windsor elegies. It is when Sessions deals with the imaginative effects of visual spectacles, art and ceremony alike, that he is in his element. His account of the young men's sojourn at Fontainebleau, imbibing French Renaissance influences at the court of Francis I, presents some of the book's most evocative writing. Strolling among classical forms in sculpture galleries, fresh from bathing in view of Raphaels and da Vincis, Surrey actually witnessed the transfiguration of myth into living presences.

  4. Sessions puts all of these influences to work in his analyses of Surrey's artistic surroundings, both in his writing and in commissioned works. These were the means by which Surrey sought to reinforce a new sense of nobility based on Roman models: the lyrics and translations, the architecture and landscape of Surrey House, the portraits by Holbein and others. Sessions' readings of the poetry and other arts make fine use of the biographical and historical groundwork he has laid in anticipation. When he reads Surrey's poems on the death of Wyatt, it is with an eye toward their future legacy, defining the poet's national role. Sessions finally turns to the iconography of the poet's final portrait, which his enemies would find so presumptuous.

  5. Visual imagery was Surrey's undoing. The charge of treason against him centred around a deliberate misinterpretation of his display of arms at Kenninghall, which appeared to challenge the Prince of Wales' succession. Surrey steadfastly maintained his innocence to the last, writing letters and vitriolic psalm paraphrases from the Tower to condemn the moral corruption of his prosecutors. This resolve in his final days, to which Sessions devotes a third of the book, bought him lasting (if not immediate) sympathy and enduring fame. Queen Mary would even refer to the shame of his execution at the opening of her first Parliament. The 'cult of Surrey' would flourish in the later Renaissance, with praise from Thomas Nashe for his nobility, and comparisons of his poetry to Sir Philip Sidney's.

  6. While Surrey's position in literary history is rarely underestimated, the circumstances of his life are equally rarely understood. Sessions' book succeeds where most biographies fail, dispensing with the standard hyperbole only to justify it in the end. He also presents the book as a preliminary step toward a fuller understanding, urging scholars toward further research into Surrey's life and historical context. Surveying the field of Surrey studies, the most glaring absence is a comprehensive edition of his works - though Sessions does mention the forthcoming edition by William McGaw from Oxford University Press. Whatever the scholarly afterlife of this biography, Sessions has done much to give readers a strong sense of the prospects and rewards of immersion in Surrey's life and art.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).