Poet's Pick April 1
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey: "The Soote Season"
Selected by Elizabeth Arnold
National Poetry Month 2015

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Elizabeth Arnold's Poetry Month Pick, April 1, 2015

"The Soote Season"
by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517 - 1547)

The soote 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 make 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 brake 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 smale;
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.


* Elizabeth Arnold Comments:

A poem is an act. It works on you.

Surrey’s poem “This Soote Season” is no exception. It affects us bodily, the way spring (the sweet season) does. All of the excitement, the surge of spring’s bourgeoning, dominates this sonnet, for thirteen and a half of its fourteen lines, until the mortal being’s take on things can’t help but insert sorrow, at the inevitable end of it all—of spring, of life. Even where religious belief promises the possibility of life after death, we know too well that promises are often broken: faith is born of doubt. Surrey’s poem progresses like a person running down a hill, gaining momentum until it changes direction so suddenly it practically falls over. And yet the force of the poem pushes through the turn in the last half-line, “and yet my sorrow springs,” partly by way of its continuing sounds and grammar.

Although written in iambic pentameter, Surrey’s lines echo the Old English four-beat line’s alliterative pattern of repeated first consonant sounds in three of the four most heavily stressed syllables: see the “b” sounds in line 1, for example, and the s sounds in line 5. And in all but one of the lines ending in the “ings” rhyme—one of only two rhyme sounds in the poem, a rarity in sonnets written in English—there’s a monosyllabic verb containing at least one consonant cluster, making the sound of the word thick and longer. It takes a long time to pronounce, giving these verbs more weight, more punch (brings, springs, flings). They are very active anyway, very physical. They are very strong verbs. The emergence of spring is enacted by them.

I love how the final turn, “and yet my sorrow springs,” that turns away from the direction of the preceding lines nevertheless remains in the spirit of those lines, ironically using the root of “spring,” the poem’s subject, in the form of yet another strong verb, “springs” (though this is not the first time it appears), but this time using the verb to describe an overwhelming feeling of loss rather than the expected joy. To say in the first half of this line, “each care decays,” as if care were a corpse, and “sorrow springs” as if sorrow were new life—these moves are more than merely witty. The sorrow that springs here reveals so viscerally how valued life is to a sentient mortal. Its eruption at the close of Surrey’s paean to the season of new birth makes me feel, oddly, joy. The verb does it. Sorrow springs, it arises out of pain in a rejuvenating way. I regret! I’m alive!

Surrey shows us that love of life rests on our fear it will end. Sorrow’s at the root of joy. It thrills!

Keats says poets must be able to hold opposing ideas in the mind at the same time. James Wright calls his lovers lonely.

It’s an awful joy, joy. Awe-ful.

About Elizabeth Arnold:
Elizabeth Arnold's most recent book is Life (Flood Editions, 2014).   She is also the author of The Reef (University of Chicago Press, 1999), Civilization (Flood Editions, 2006), and Effacement (Flood Editions, 2010). She is on the MFA faculty at the University of Maryland and lives in Hyattsville, Maryland.

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