Just as last month we looked at a poem related to the Copts, and inspired by Coptic culture and legends, this week we’ll look at a poem based on a legend of another of the put upon peoples of the east Mediterranean, the Assyrians. The Assyrians, Christians with ancient pre-Christian roots, are currently being driven out of Northern Iraq as their heritage is quite literally destroyed by Islamist fanatics with sledgehammers. Assyria was once a great power in the Near East, whose power and wealth was the source of fear, awe and some great legends, not always scrupulously accurate, among neighbouring peoples. The legend that features in this week’s poem is hardly accurate at all, and yet was put to a rather interesting use by the sixteenth century soldier and poet Henry Howard.
The poem is based on the life the semi-mythical Assyrian King Sardanapalus, the supposed last king of the Assyrians, whose decadent life and eventual suicide was told by the 1st century BC Greek writer Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus’ Sardanapalus was a slothful, hedonistic transvestite, who, after losing several key battles, had himself burned alive in a great funeral pyre. The name probably derives from the historical 7th Century BC king Ashurbanipal, although he was not actually the last king of Assyria, and nor was he known for decadence. Nevertheless, the legend, for a very long time, was better known than the history; Sardanapalus was a byword for decadence, and Howard describes his life with relish:
TH’ ASSYRIAN king, 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,
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,
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.
(I have taken the version from Bartleby, with modernised spelling and punctuation – the original, with no punctuation whatever – is quite difficult to follow, even when read aloud)
This is a very early example of a sonnet in English, and it was in fact Howard who first wrote what later became known as the English sonnet (three quatrains and a couplet), as distinct from the Italian sonnet (two quatrains – or an octave – and a sestet), although they are more strongly associated with Spenser and Shakespeare. The poem is remarkable for this alone, but the poem is also unique for its brazenness, though it will take a little explaining why…
The conceit is straightforward, but well executed. Sardanapalus, through his excessively pleasure-focused life, has become too soft for the rigours of warfare. Every aspect of war compares unfavourably with the life of the boudoir – and there is a distinct note of bitter sarcasm in Howard’s listing of these aspects: sword blows aren’t as nice as kisses, shields (‘targes’) harder than a lady’s side, ‘soldier’s fare’ not as nice as ‘glutton feasts’. Such sneering makes up the main body of the poem. But there is, as in many sonnets, a ‘turn’, a change in focus or direction at the end of the poem, in this case right at the end. Howard allows that Sardanapalus showed one ‘manful deed’ at least, in his eventual suicide.
In the context that the poem was written in, this turn, on top of the bilious verses before it, is very provocative indeed. For Howard was making a point not about a centuries gone Assyrian King, but about his very own king, Henry VIII. The point is, you’re a decadent, lust-filled old has-been and a failure as the great warrior you once fancied yourself to be, but you can always redeem yourself by committing suicide. As we know, Henry Tudor wasn’t the kind of king to take criticism with good humour.
What particularly inspired Howard to write this poem isn’t known, but it must have been part inspired by the King’s marriage and execution of two of Howard’s cousins, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Although those two were protestant (Anne sincerely, Catherine nominally) most of the Howards – though conformist – were Catholic in sympathy, and Howard may have come to view England’s reformation as a schism born of the King’s own moral dissolution. Certainly Henry and his father, Thomas Howard, latterly the Duke of Norfolk, spent much of the middle years of the sixteenth century trying to row back the reforms that Cromwell and Cranmer had effected in the wake of the King’s split with Rome over his first divorce.
Accusing the king of being effeminate and a poor warrior was certain to kindle his wrath – it is certainly a brave, perhaps foolish accusation; but it is one that the Howards, more than most, were well-qualified to make. Thomas Howard led the field at the decisive English victory over the Scottish at Flodden while the king was chasing the ghost of medieval glory in England’s remaining Continental possessions. Thomas and Henry Howard both held off the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace, northerners resisting the hated reforms of the King’s ‘evil counsellors’ (that the Howards were no great fans of). The rebels were undone by Henry’s deception, after their leader was offered a truce only to be executed when he accepted it, a ploy in which Howard may have been unwittingly complicit. The Howards’ credentials as soldiers, anyway, were unimpeachable, while the king’s were mildly embarrassing.
They were imprisoned at the end of Henry VIII’s reign on trumped up treason charges, to clear the way for the ascension of the very protestant Edward to the throne. Thomas Howard was spared execution because the King died before him, but his son was not so lucky. Henry Howard was executed – the poem can’t have helped his case in an age where it was considered treasonous even to imagine (to ‘encompass’)the King’s death. He was, I hope, consoled by having made poetic history on two counts: having invented the English sonnet, and having written perhaps the most brazen contemporary satire on one of English history’s angriest monarchs.
The image at the top of the post shows ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ by the 19th century French painter Delacroix, itself inspired by Byron’s play, Sardanapalus. The Assyrian king sits apathetic and merciless as his concubines are prepared for his funeral pyre – that is, murdered. Howard would surely have appreciated the painting, for it (albeit quite unintentionally) highlights one of the parallels between the Assyrian legend and the English monarch – the use and slaughter of young women in recompense for his own inadequacy. One imagines Delacroix had quite an enjoyable time painting it.