Sessions, William A(lfred) 1938-
SESSIONS, William A(lfred) 1938-
(W. A. Sessions)
ADDRESSES: Offıce—Department of English, Georgia State University, 33 Gilmer St., Atlanta, GA 30303-3080. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: State University of West Georgia, Carrollton, assistant professor of English, 1959-60; Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL, assistant professor, 1960-62; St. John's University, Jamaica, NY, assistant professor, 1962-66; Georgia State University, Atlanta, associate professor, 1966-72, professor, 1972-93, Regents' Professor of English, 1993—, director of English department graduate school, 1969-75. Member of Medieval Institute and Institute for Historical Research.
MEMBER: Modern Language Association, Renaissance Society of America, American Literature Association, Southeastern Renaissance Society.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Barrister Publishing (New York, NY), 1966.
(With Bert C. Bach and William Walling) The Liberating Form: A Handbook-Anthology of English and American Poetry, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1972.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Twayne Publishers (New York, NY), 1986.
(Editor) Francis Bacon's Legacy of Texts: "The Art of Discovery Grows with Discovery," AMS Press (New York, NY), 1990.
(As W. A. Sessions) Francis Bacon Revisited, Twayne Publishers (New York, NY), 1996.
(As W. A. Sessions) Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life (biography), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Contributor to books, including Milton and the Fine Arts, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989; and Rethinking the Henrician Age, University of Illinois Press, 1994. Contributor to journals, including Profession, Southern Review, and Literature and Belief.
SIDELIGHTS: Literature professor William A. Sessions is well known for his scholarship of sixteenth-century English poet Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, who is often credited as the inventor of the English sonnet—a poem of fourteen lines—and heroic quatrain forms, as well as of blank verse—unrhymed verse consisting of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. The rest of Surrey's fame lies with his frequent conflicts with King Henry VIII and British royalty; he was imprisoned several times as a result, and finally executed for treason in 1547. In his widely praised cultural biography Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life, Sessions attempts to bring together the two sides of Surrey: the innovative poet, and the nobleman some historians consider to have been tragically out of touch with the changing political climate of Renaissance England. Surrey, who was a cousin of one of Henry VIII's wives, Anne Boleyn, was upset by the advancement of certain associates of the royal family to aristocratic positions; in particular, he was upset by the advancement of his rival Edward Seymour. Surrey felt that England should have a nobility modeled more closely on the system employed by the Roman Empire, and even though his political maneuverings did not include aspirations to the throne itself, Surrey was seen as a threat by the king because of these beliefs.
Surrey's ideas about literature and poetry were influenced by his concepts concerning aristocracy. As Michael Ullyot observed in an Early Modern Literary Studies review, it was through art that "Surrey sought to reinforce a new sense of nobility based on Roman models: the lyrics and translations, the architecture and landscape of Surrey House." While under house arrest Surrey created the English sonnet, and his inspiration to write heroic verse echoed his sadness over what he felt was the decline of the aristocracy, as Sessions observes. But the poet's position on the royalty eventually proved his undoing. Already suffering the disfavor of the king because of his military defeat at St. Etienne in 1546, the poet provoked further controversy when he displayed a coat of arms boasting his lineage; this his enemies interpreted as a direct challenge to the prince of Wales. Though he protested that his intent was innocent, Surrey was imprisoned and then executed for treason.
Although Sessions portrays Surrey as a noble figure in history and literature, Katherine Duncan-Jones argued in her Times Literary Supplement review of Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey that Surrey was actually an upstart undeserving of Sessions' willingness to forgive certain flaws. Duncan-Jones cited Surrey as an elitist who had the "conviction that his noble birth entitled him to harass commoners," and she noted that in Sessions' book "many of the documented events of Surrey's short life almost vanish—or, when they are visible, are puzzlingly difficult to connect with the grand claims made for Surrey's high seriousness." On the other hand, Robert C. Braddock maintained in Renaissance Quarterly that the biography is a "carefully documented" work that "reveals a Surrey far more complex than previously depicted." Ullyot had high praise for the book, as well, calling it "an exhaustive and densely-footnoted biography, as remarkable for its ambition as for its resounding success." Ullyot concluded, "Sessions' book succeeds where most biographies fail, dispensing with the standard hyperbole only to justify it in the end."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Early Modern Literary Studies, September, 2000, Michael Ullyot, review of Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life.
Journal of English and Germanic Philology, January, 1999, Charles Whitney, review of Francis Bacon Revisited, p. 93.
Renaissance Quarterly, spring, 2001, Robert C. Braddock, review of Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey, p. 306.
Times Literary Supplement, June 25, 1999, Katherine Duncan-Jones, "The Sound of Broken Glass" (review of Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey, pp. 26-27.*