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H. E. Marshall

The Beginning of Blank Verse

T 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 unkind:

"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 English.

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?"