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MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

surrey surrey’s love lyrics

Surrey is celebrated for four distinct bodies of poetry, amorous lyrics, translations, lyrics lamenting his imprisonments, and epitaphs on the deaths of others. At least one amorous lyric, “From Tuscan cam my ladies worthi race,” is addressed to “Geraldine,” or Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald, whom Surrey encountered at the royal court in 1541. Surrey travels through a landscape of Petrarchan language toward his conclusion that “happy ys he that may obtaine her love.” It is possible, even likely, that a good number of Surrey’s other lyrics, several of which are direct translations of Petrarch, are indeed part of a real or playful attempt to “obtaine her love.” The emphasis of the amorous lyrics, however, is not on love attained but on love denied. Though the love that masters him may betray him, the poet proclaims in “Love that doth reign and live within my heart” that he will remain faithful to the end, for “[s]weet is the death that taketh end by love.”

William Sessions and others have argued persuasively that Surrey’s lyrics are best understood as a humanist poetry of translation, not in a narrow sense of changing a poem from one language into another, but in the broadest sense of “trans-latio,” the “bringing across” of its meaning from one place, time, or situation to another. Conversely, one may think of “translation” as a way that a poet reaches into another time, place, and language to find a way of rendering his own thought and feeling. Hence the Latin-derived word “translation” is close in meaning to the Greek-derived word “metaphor.”

If Surrey’s lyrics are “translated,” using Petrarchan style, imagery, and verse form to create a vehicle within which his meaning is carried, they must also be understood as “occasional,” that is, closely adjusted to an immediate situation. If a “translation” carries a meaning from someplace, it also carries it to someplace. Surrey’s “translations” carefully register his own position, in terms of gender and social status and in terms of incidents in his life and the lives of those around him. These references are more hinting than direct in the amorous poems, placing the modern reader in the position of an outsider in a love game where Surrey’s own friends would alone know who loves whom.

The personal resonances are most difficult to trace in Surrey’s direct translations Page 449  from the Bible and from Vergil’s Aeneid . His biblical translations are principally from the Penitential Psalms and from Ecclesiastes , both texts that were widely used in his culture as vehicles for meditation. Hence the bringing across of their meaning into English is more a collective than a personal act. From the Aeneid Surrey chooses not the epic portions about the founding of Rome, but the tragic sections from books 2 and 4 in which Aeneas describes the destruction of Troy and the story of Aeneas and Dido, culminating in her suicide when he leaves her. Though stylistically different from the Petrarchan poems—partly indebted to Gavin Douglas*—they are alike in showing how historical action resonates as personal sorrow.

In the lyrics referring to Surrey’s imprisonments, the biographical references are more overt, as in “London, hast thou accused me/Of breach of laws, the root of strife?” Exemplary is one of the poems from his 1537 imprisonment at Windsor:

So cruel prison how could betide, alas,
As proud Windsor, where I in lust and joy,
With a king’s son, my childish years did pass
In greater feast than Priam’s sons of Troy?

Here Surrey describes the sorrow of his immediate situation and contrasts it to a happier past at Windsor when he was the companion of Henry Fitzroy. He then links their situation to that of the Trojan princes before the fall of the city. Like Aeneas in Book 2 of Vergil’s poem, Surrey finds himself in an emotional bondage where the “remembrance of the greater grief” overwhelms the present.


Surrey’s masterworks are his epitaphs, especially those on Sir Thomas Wyatt. Surrey brings together all of the elements of his other verse—the language of classical military heroism, the language of sorrow from the Psalms , the language of loss from the Petrarchan sonnet—to praise Wyatt, analyze his own inner torment, and rage at the corruption of his society and his king himself. Jonathan Crewe has aptly found in these poems a “suicidal poetics” by which Surrey brought together all the psychological, social, and cultural elements that he could not control elsewhere and that in the end destroyed him.

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