The erotic politics of grief in Surrey's "so crewell prison"

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Wntr, 2006 by Candace Lines

Grief and mourning are central to the poetic career of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Surrey's elegies for dead male friends are his best-known poems and the object of most Surrey scholarship. "Even critics ... who are unsympathetic to Surrey's mode of poetry find it possible to praise his elegiac pieces," notes Walter R. Davis, due to their "intense personal feeling." (1) "So crewell prison," in which Surrey mourns the death of his boyhood friend Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, is commonly seen as the most "intense," and certainly the most personal, of Surrey's elegies. This intensity, which sharply contrasts with the smooth conventionality of Surrey's Petrarchan love poems, proposes itself all too readily as a fissure in the normally impeccable surface of Surrey's self-presentation--a crack through which truth flows. It would be a mistake, however, to see Surrey's poetic grief as a privileged site of access to an unmediated, artless subjectivity. Surrey's grief, however deeply he may have felt it, is both artful and political. "So crewell prison" incorporates grief, nostalgia, and eroticism into Surrey's larger project of self-fashioning and self-assertion as an honorable yet semidispossessed nobleman and knight, as a member of a threatened, perhaps dying chivalric order. The poem participates in what Thomas More called "[k]ynges games, as it were stage playes, and for the more part plaied vpon scafoldes." (2) "So crewell prison," like much of Surrey's life and work, is a prop in the theater of power.

Power, in "So crewell prison," is imbued with eroticism to a degree that might mask the poem's politics. In recent years, the poem's erotic representations of male friendship and intimacy have become visible, thanks largely to the development of queer theory and criticism. The result of this new visibility has, however, been fairly limited: critical focus on and debate over Surrey's own erotic desires. (3) Although this acknowledgement of literary homoeroticism, a kind of critical "outing" of a text and perhaps its author, is significant, it should be the beginning rather than the end of analysis. To read the erotic as a terminal point requiring no further critical attention is to assume an absolute isolation of eroticism and sexuality from larger social and political structures. Yet the foundational work on sexuality in recent decades, notably that of Michel Foucault and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, has argued the impossibility of separating the erotic and the social. (4) For the early modern period, Alan Bray has analyzed the inextricability of male homoeroticism from structures of authority, while Alan Stewart, pointing out "the confused ubiquity of sodomy within humanistically informed patronage relationships," has sought to move the homoerotic from the margins to the center of analysis. (5) Accordingly, one aim of this essay is to relocate the erotics of "So crewell prison" within early modern structures of power and authority, in which the display of intimacy between men always also displays influence, patronage, and power. (6) The poem places itself on a fluid and rather fraught boundary between the acceptable and the transgressive, in both erotics and politics, in ways that reward tracing out in detail.

The youthful friendship between Surrey and Richmond that "So crewell prison" memorializes had every reason to be close. The two teenage boys lived together from 1530 until around early 1535 at Windsor and, in 1532-33, as guests at the court of Francis I. (7) This arrangement, while fostering an emotional bond, was itself rooted in politics. Surrey's father, the Duke of Norfolk, seems to have engineered it in a manner not unlike the making of a dynastic marriage, and with the same keen eye to the relationship's potential advantages. (8) In December 1529, Norfolk invited the Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys to dinner and showed him a Latin letter written by the twelve-year-old Surrey, taking pains to emphasize the value of Surrey's precocity as a tool for alliance making. Norfolk said, according to Chapuys, "The King has entrusted to me the education of his bastard son, the Duke of Richmond, of whom my own son may become in time preceptor and tutor (incitateur), that he may attain both knowledge and virtue, so that a friendship thus cemented promises ... to be very strong and firm; and will be further consolidated by alliance; for the King wishes the Duke to marry one of my daughters." (9)

This conversation occurred shortly after Thomas Wolsey's fall and Norfolk's consequent return to the center of power. The alliances Norfolk mentioned were part of an attempt to join the Howards as closely as possible to the Tudors: two months earlier, Chapuys had written to Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor, of a plan (supposedly sponsored by Anne Boleyn, whose mother was a Howard) to marry Surrey to the princess Mary. (10) Although this scheme collapsed, Richmond was married to Surrey's sister Mary Howard in late 1533. All of this took place in a context of extreme uncertainty about the succession: the marriage occurred after Anne Boleyn gave birth to the princess Elizabeth instead of Henry VIII's hoped-for legitimate son. Richmond, although illegitimate, was during his lifetime the king's only son. Since 1525, when the boy was ceremoniously granted the titles of Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Richmond and Somerset, it had been apparent that the king "had in mind the possibility of making FitzRoy heir to the throne." (11) The advantages of cementing a "very strong and firm" friendship between the Howard heir and the likely royal heir are obvious, especially since the Howards had been relatively eclipsed in power during Wolsey's administration. Thus the love that Surrey, in "So crewell prison," claims existed between himself and Richmond was not in any sense detached from political concerns; it originated in Howard alliance politics and marked their success. (12)


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