Verse > Anthologies > William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. > The Book of Elizabethan Verse
William Stanley Braithwaite, ed.  The Book of Elizabethan Verse.  1907.
On Sardanapalus’ Dishonourable Life and Miserable Death
By Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517–1547)
TH’ ASSYRIAN king, 1 in peace, with foul desire
And filthy lusts that stained his regal heart;
In war, that should set princely hearts on fire,
Did yield, vanquished for want of martial art.
The dint of swords from kisses seemèd strange,        5
And harder than his lady’s side his targe;
From glutton feasts to soldier’s fare a change;
His helmet far above a garland’s charge:
Who scarce the name of manhood did retain,
Drenchèd in sloth and womanish delight,        10
Feeble of spirit, impatient of pain,
When he had lost his honour and his right,
(Proud, time of wealth; in storms, appalled with dread,)
Murthered himself, to show some manful deed.
Note 1. “It was a favourite exercise with the Italian poets,” says Nott, “with both the Greek and Latin writers of the lower ages, to compose short copies of verses sometimes in the form of inscriptions, sometimes as epitaphs on the character of persons distinguished in history. Of this description is the present sonnet. The character of Sardanapalus, whether it be a translation or an original composition, is drawn with a masterly hand. It is probable that Surrey had the conduct of Henry VIII. in mind. The unfortunate Anne Boleyn, who had been sacrificed to that king’s capricious passions, was Surrey’s first cousin.” Leigh Hunt’s interpretation of this sonnet is interesting, for he conceives it to be a direct ridicule of Henry under the guise of Sardanapalus, which was no doubt instigated from the beginning, as Nott intimates, because of the close family connections between Anne Boleyn and Surrey. He says (English Sonnets), “By murdering himself to ‘show some manful deed,’ he means to intimate, that the only thing which was left for Henry to do, in order to show himself not inferior to Sardanapalus, was to be bold enough to commit suicide; but, as Henry failed to do this, he is here delivered up to the disgust of posterity, as a thoroughly unmanly scoundrel.
  “The boldness of the sonnet is wonderful, if we consider the times and the two men. Is it not probable that it was the real death-warrant of Surrey? Henry picked an ill-founded quarrel with him on an assumption in his coat of arms; but what was that assumption, had it even been illegal, compared with this terrible invective? One imagines Henry, with wrath-white lips, putting the copy of it into his pocket, and saying internally, ‘I’ll murder you, at all events.’ And he did.” [back]

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