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Poem of the week: Brittle Beauty by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey


Had Henry Howard lived past 30, it might have been he rather than Shakespeare who gave his name to the sonnet form in which they both specialised

Together with Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, was the Tudor poet who did most to establish that new Italian immigrant, the sonnet, in remarkably comfortable quarters in the English language. This week's poem, Brittle Beauty (also known as The Frailty and Hurtfulness of Beauty), is one of those in which Surrey sets himself the challenge of playing the same duo of rhyme-sounds in each of its three quatrains.

It's difficult to talk in general about sonnets and their rhyme schemes without resorting to letters of the alphabet in innumerable, confusing patterns. To put it briefly and simplistically, there's an ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG structure, the one which Shakespeare developed so expressively, and there's the Italian, Petrarchan, original, with its octet rhyming ABBAABBA and its sestet usually rhyming CDECDE. Surrey wrote sonnets both with different rhymes in each quatrain – so providing the blueprint for Shakespeare – and sonnets with just a pair of rhymes until the couplet, like this one. It's a little closer to the rhyme-intensive Italian model, perhaps. In fact, it out-rhymes the Italian – not so easy in a rhyme-poor language such as English. Surrey can hardly be blamed for including a half-rhyme ("poison") and an unusual plural ("peason" for "peas"). The scheme looks relentless even when expressed alphabetically ABAB, ABAB, ABAB. So why does Surrey choose it for this poem?

Perhaps it's because he neither wants nor needs to mount the sort of argument that requires rhetorical development. He is too angry, or, more likely, too confident of his assertion. His target is conventional enough – feminine beauty and its wiles and betrayals – and his audience of male aristocrats knows the story backwards. Perhaps his aim is to goad himself to originality, and show what a range of verbal fireworks he can bring to a conventional theme.

The tight rhyme scheme is not Surrey's only sonic device: there's plenty of alliteration, too. "Brittle beauty", "tickle treasure", "slipper in sliding", "jewel of jeopardy" are among the most noticeable examples, but almost every line makes use of the device to some degree. The Anglo-Saxon echo is heightened by the mid-line caesura. In fact, some of the comparisons sound as if they could have hopped straight out of the Exeter Book of Riddles: "Costly in keeping, past not worth two peason;/ Slipper in sliding, as is an eel's tail." We're not used to this kind of earthy talk in such an aristocratic form as the sonnet, and it's easy to imagine the earl's peers being amused and perhaps a little shocked by the hint of sexual innuendo in the display.

Since Surrey never assigns a gender to the owner of the beauty, it is of course feasible that he is targeting some less tangible, more politically dangerous, form of duplicity.

It's a cleverly unrevealing piece of work, with perhaps some smouldering of deeper feeling behind its verbal and rhythmic energy. The last quatrain, while not exactly offering a "turn," marks an intensification of mood, with the speaker making a first-person appearance in line 11 as if to authenticate, and autograph, his grievances.

Reaching the couplet, Surrey can't find much more to say against beauty than has already been said. The image of frostbitten fruit is vivid enough, but it doesn't go very far, considering the kind of language used earlier – words like "jeopardy", "peril", "poison". Yet it's part of the poem's attraction that it defies the built-in formal and rhetorical dynamic. The couplet of the English sonnet can often sound overdetermined. At least here it's a natural extension to the list, a final flourish that recalls the poem's opening metaphor of seasons and flowering, and so rounds things off. Of course, "farest" might embody the tribute of a pun, a reminder that this hurtful, deceiving beauty was once the fairest.

Surrey has left us a variety of "songs and sonnets", suggesting a lively and innovative writer with accomplishments beyond those of the average courtly sonneteer. Perhaps if he had not been executed for alleged treason at the age of 30 (Henry VIII's final victim), he, rather than Shakespeare, might have given his name to the "three quatrains plus couplet" kind of sonnet. The term "English sonnet" is therefore preferable to the interchangeable "Shakespearean sonnet", since it recognises that a lot of the initial building-work was collaborative. Surrey, perhaps, should be remembered not only as a poet who helped make the rules of the sonnet, but as one who sometimes had the style and wit to break them.

Brittle Beauty

Brittle beauty, that Nature made so frail,
Whereof the gift is small, and short the season;
Flowering to-day, to-morrow apt to fail;
Tickle treasure, abhorred of reason:
Dangerous to deal with, vain, of none avail;
Costly in keeping, past not worth two peason;
Slipper in sliding, as is an eel's tail;
Hard to obtain, once gotten, not geason:
Jewel of jeopardy, that peril doth assail;
False and untrue, enticed oft to treason;
Enemy to youth, that most may I bewail;
Ah! bitter sweet, infecting as the poison,
    Thou farest as fruit that with the frost is taken;
    To-day ready ripe, tomorrow all to-shaken.

• Note: geason = rare

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