The Beginning of Blank Verse
HE poet with whose verses the last chapter ended was named Henry
Howard, Earl of Surrey. The son of a noble and ancient house,
Surrey lived a gay life in court and camp. Proud, hot-headed,
quick-tempered, he was often in trouble, more than once in
prison. In youth he was called "the most foolish proud boy in
England," and at the age of thirty, still young and gay and full
of life, he died upon the scaffold. Accused of treason, yet
innocent, he fell a victim to "the wrath of princes," the wrath
of that hot-headed King Henry VIII. Surrey lived at the same
time as Wyatt and, although he was fourteen years younger, was
his friend. Together they are the forerunners of our modern
poetry. They are nearly always spoken of together—Wyatt and
Surrey—Surrey and Wyatt. Like Wyatt, Surrey followed the
Italian poets. Like Wyatt he wrote sonnets; but whereas Wyatt's
are rough, Surrey's are smooth and musical, although he does not
keep the rules about rime endings. One who wrote not long after
the time of Wyatt and Surrey says of them, "Sir Thomas Wyatt, the
elder, and Henry, Earl of Surrey, were the two chieftains, who,
having travelled in Italy, and there tasted the sweet and stately
measures and style of the Italian poesie . . . greatly polished
our rude and homely manner of vulgar poesie from that it had been
before, and for that cause may justly be said the first reformers
of our English metre and style. . . . I repute
them for the two
chief lanterns of light to all others that have since employed
their pens on English poesie."
A later writer has called Surrey the "first refiner" of our
language. And just as there comes a time in our own lives when we
begin to care not only for the story, but for the words in which
a story is told and for the way in which those words are used,
so, too, there comes such a time in the life of a nation, and
this time for England we may perhaps date from Wyatt and Surrey.
Before then there were men who tried to use the best words in the
best way, but they did it unknowingly, as birds might sing. The
language, too, in which they wrote was still a growing thing.
When Surrey wrote it had nearly reached its finished state, and
he helped to finish and polish it.
As the fashion was, Surrey chose a lady to whom to address his
verses. She was the little Lady Elizabeth Fitz-Gerald, whose
father had died a broken-hearted prisoner in the Tower. She was
only ten when Surrey made her famous in song, under the name of
Geraldine. Here is a sonnet in which he, seeing the joy of all
nature at the coming of Spring, mourns that his lady is still
"The sweet season, that bud and bloom forth brings,
With green hath clad the hill, and eke the vale,
The nightingale with feathers new she sings:
The turtle to her mate hath told her tale.
Summer is come, for every spray now springs,
The hart hath hung his old head on the pale,
The buck in haste his winter coat he flings;
The fishes float with new repaired scale,
The adder all her slough away she slings;
The swift swallow pursueth the flies small;
The busy-bee her honey now she mings;
Winter is worn that was the flowers' bale.
And thus I see among these pleasant things
Each care decays, and yet my sorrow springs."
Besides following Wyatt in making the sonnet known to English
readers, Surrey was the first to write in blank verse, that is in
long ten-syllabled lines which do not rime. This is a kind of
poetry in which some of the grandest poems in our language are
written, and we should remember Surrey as the first maker of it.
For with very little change the rules which Surrey laid down have
been followed by our best poets ever since, so from the sixteenth
century till now there has been far less change in our poetry
than in the five centuries before. You can see this for yourself
if you compare Surrey's poetry with Layamon's or Langland's, and
then with some of the blank verse near the end of this book.
It was in translating part of Virgil's Aeneid that Surrey used
blank verse. Virgil was an ancient Roman poet, born 70 B.C.,
who in his book called the Aeneid told of the wanderings and
adventures of Aeneas, and part of this poem Surrey translated into
This is how he tells of the way in which Aeneas saved his old
father by carrying him on his shoulders out of the burning town
of Troy when "The crackling flame was heard throughout the walls,
and more and more the burning heat drew near."
"My shoulders broad,
And layéd neck with garments 'gan I spread,
And thereon cast a yellow lion's skin;
And thereupon my burden I receive.
Young Iulus clasped in my right hand,
Followeth me fast, with unequal pace,
And at my back my wife. Thus did we pass
By places shadowed most with the night,
And me, whom late the dart which enemies threw,
Nor press of Argive routs could make amaz'd,
Each whisp'ring wind hath power now to fray,
And every sound to move my doubtful mind.
So much I dread my burden and my fere.
And now we 'gan draw near unto the gate,
Right well escap'd the danger, as me thought,
When that at hand a sound of feet we heard.
My father then, gazing throughout the dark,
Cried on me, 'Flee, son! they are at hand.'
With that, bright shields, and shene armours I saw
But then, I know not what unfriendly god
My troubled wit from me bereft for fear.
For while I ran by the most secret streets,
Eschewing still the common haunted track,
From me, catif, alas! bereavéd was
Creusa then, my spouse; I wot not how,
Whether by fate, or missing of the way,
Or that she was by weariness retain'd;
But never sith these eyes might her behold.
Nor did I yet perceive that she was lost,
Nor never backward turnéd I my mind;
Till we came to the hill whereon there stood
The old temple dedicated to Ceres.
And when that we were there assembled all,
She was only away deceiving us,
Her spouse, her son, and all her company.
What god or man did I not then accuse,
Near wode for ire? or what more cruel chance
Did hap to me in all Troy's overthrow?"