A summary of an early English sonnet
As we’ve mentioned before, although he gets the credit for it, William Shakespeare didn’t invent the Shakespearean sonnet. That specific poetic form – also known as the English sonnet, and rhyming ababcdcdefefgg – was instead the innovation of a Tudor courtier and poet named Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47), who, as well as making Shakespeare’s Sonnets possible, also invented the verse form that would make Elizabethan drama possible: blank verse. In short, the Bard had a lot to thank Henry Howard for.
‘Alas, so all things now do hold their peace’ is one of Henry Howard’s finest sonnets written in the new rhyme scheme he created. The poem is included below with modernised spelling, before we proceed to a few words of analysis.
Alas, so all things now do hold their peace,
Heaven and earth disturbèd in no thing;
The beasts, the air, the birds their song do cease,
The nightès car the stars about doth bring;
Calm is the sea; the waves work less and less:
So am not I, whom love alas doth wring,
Bringing before my face the great increase
Of my desires, whereat I weep and sing,
In joy and woe, as in a doubtful case.
For my sweet thoughts sometime do pleasure bring:
But by and by, the cause of my disease
Gives me a pang that inwardly doth sting,
When that I think what grief it is again
To live and lack the thing should rid my pain.
The meaning of ‘Alas, so all things now do hold their peace’ might be paraphrased as follows: ‘Alas, everything around me is peaceful and quiet: the animals, the air, everything is quiet. The birds stop singing, and the night’s chariot brings the stars into view. The sea is calm, the waves softer. But I am not peaceful like this: love has me in its grip, and keeps showing me the one who is the cause of my desire, making me weep and sing, in both joy and woe, inspiring doubtful and contradictory feelings within me. [They are contradictory because] my feelings for this other person sometimes make me happy, until I remember my cause of woe [i.e. that my beloved does not love me back] causing me a pang of pain when I think what a horrible feeling it is to live and to lack the thing that would rid me of my pain [i.e. having my love for the other person returned].’
The square brackets are there because we’re not paraphrasing what is actually in the poem at those points: rather, we’re offering a bit of helpful filler as to the (probable) cause of Howard’s pain. It certainly sounds like a lover whose love is hopeless and whose beloved doesn’t want to know. We’ve all felt that: joy when we think of that special someone, followed swiftly by misery when we reflect that they don’t want to know us. It’s probably never going to be possible to ascertain whether ‘Alas, so all things now do hold their peace’ was motivated by a real-life love affair gone wrong, or Surrey’s attempt to come to terms with unrequited love; but the courtly love tradition was important to the early sonneteers in English (as it had been to their great Italian forebears, such as Petrarch), and it may be a simple exercise, albeit one which shows a considerable dexterity with words and an understanding of the pangs of unrequited love.
In short, the poem is similar to another of Henry Howard’s sonnets, ‘The soote season’, in which the poet laments that, even though the world around him is full of the joys of spring and early summer, with trees in flower and the sun shining, this joyous mood does not carry over to the poet himself, who feels the darkest misery.
‘Alas, so all things now do hold their peace’ is noteworthy because of its unusual rhyme scheme. No sooner had Surrey invented the English sonnet form than he was exploiting the form’s possibilities. For although the English or Shakespearean sonnet conventionally rhymes ababcdcdefefgg, and so can be distinguished from the Italian sonnet form by the sheer variety of its rhymes, ‘Alas, so all things now do hold their peace’ actually contains very few different rhymes, and although some of them strike us now as half-rhymes or pararhymes (how they would have sounded in Surrey’s time is only partially understood), the essential rhyme scheme of this sonnet is ababababababcc, giving it a narrower, rather than broader, range of rhymes than the Italian sonnet.
Is this significant? In a poem that is about things holding their peace and being still and constant, the repeated rhymes suggest an inability to move forward: things have entered a kind of stasis. All things ‘hold their peace’. It is a mark of Surrey’s underappreciated greatness as a versifier that he seized upon the potential of his new rhyme scheme and turned it upon its head in this little-known gem of a sonnet.