Short Lyrics by Three Cavalier Poets: Edmund Waller (1606-87), Sir John Suckling (1609-1642), and Richard Lovelace (1618-57)
Genre: secular lyrics echoing late Greek and Roman poetic forms, referring to characters by Latin names or pseudonyms for actual persons known to the poet.
Form: rhyming tetrameter and trimeter poems in couplets or an simple abab cdcd rhyme schemes
Characters: the poet, often in a dramatically exaggerated stance of world-weariness, bravery, resignation, defiance, or several of those poses combined, the poet's mistress or shepherds and shepherdesses following the pastoral mode's convention of representing court nobles as rustic singers in a nostalgic "Arcadia." The Cavalier Arcadia, however, has been blighted by deception, age, and sheer over-use of the erotic freedoms promised in Elizabethan pastoral poetry. Compare Raleigh's answer to Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love."
Waller, "The Story of Phoebus and Daphne Applied": In a Greek myth, most influentially retold by Ovid's Metamorphoses, the sun god (Phoebus Apollo) passionately pursued the mortal Daphne, daughter of a river god. The girl ran from the god's embraces, praying to her father for aid, and the river god turned her into a bay laurel tree. Apollo, frustrated by her escape, broke off a branch of the laurel and made of it a wreath with which great poets would be crowned. Waller's poem rethinks the myth from the point of view of a later poet, the young Thyrsis (named for the flails carried by worshipers of Dionysus/Bacchus) who pursues Saccharissa ("most sweet") as Apollo pursued Daphne, but when rejected, found fame as a poet. What becomes of the pursued female? What does acceptance of the poem's logic say about love, and how might a woman comment upon that? How does this miniature drama present the successful poet? What becomes the function of poetry, itself, and would Sir Philip Sidney approve? The last question is curiously, biographically appropriate because, after Waller's first wife died, he fell in love with Lady Dorothy Sidney (a distant relative of Sir Philip) and addressed her in poems, unsuccessfully, as "Sacharissa."
Suckling, "I prithee spare me gentle boy" (Luminarium): The "boy" in question is Cupid (or Eros, in Greek), the god of love, and Suckling's world-weary, bantering tone suggests that he is using the convention merely as a poetic technique, with no real sense of reverence for the passion or its classical deity. What does this poem's speaker ask of "love," as opposed to the speakers of Sidney's or Wyatt's sonnets? When the dramatic protagonist in Congreve's The Way of the World quotes this poem, a generation later and beyond both the Puritan dictatorship and the Restoration, what will that suggest about her? Suckling's compositional strategies, his way of positioning himself against conventional attitudes about love, especially, have been compared to those of John Donne. If we make allowances for the considerable difference between their subjects, one might even compare Suckling's poems to George Herbert's struggles with conventional faith. What do these "oppositional" poets tell us about C17 English literature?
Lovelace, "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars," and "To Althea, from Prison": Although all three of these poets are generally considered "Cavalier" or court-party poets, Lovelace represents a striking challenge to the ironic, self-deprecating tone of Waller's and Suckling's verse. What do the poems' attempt to establish about the speaker's relationship to social and ethical codes, and to the female addressees of the poems? Keep in mind that, as in the case of many sonneteers' verses and all of Herrick's poems, there need be no real "Lucasta" or "Althea" for the poem to do its job.
Additional Interpretive Issues and Research Sources:
1) These poets are among the more popular of the court-based, Royalist poets. Many of them openly supported Charles I, and later his queen, Henrietta Maria, which led them into a real "culture war" against the Puritan writers and warriors who formed the Parliamentary forces who eventually triumphed under Oliver Cromwell. Cavalier poets, from the French "horsemen," identified their somewhat old fashioned, free-thinking lifestyle with extravagant dress (rich silks and vast, complex sleeve and doublet designs) and characteristically long, wavy hair, directly opposed to the plain black and white clothing and uniform "pudding bowl" haircuts for which the Parliamentary solders were nicknamed the "Roundheads." Cavalier poetry extends the archaic dress and hair styles into nostalgic uses of classical Greek and Latin tropes or situations, such as the lover abandoned or the soldier on the eve or in the aftermath of battle. How do the poets' attitudes toward love and constancy and faith express themselves in the poems, and how might that relate to their contemporary, Civil War experiences?
2) Many of the Cavalier poets, because they found themselves on the losing side in a terrible civil war, had to make difficult decisions that often involved violating the very codes which some of their poems celebrated. Edmund Waller, for instance, twice may have informed against his Royalist friends in return for leniency when in the grips of Parliamentary prosecutors. How might this personal experience of betrayal and conflict affect the philosophy of their poems? With what other authors might we compare them?
3) After the Restoration, when the Puritan government's policies were rolled back, the Royalist side of English culture, especially in London, eagerly embraced the chance to restore the aristocratic liberties of the court, as well. When the theaters were reopened, playwrights often quoted or alluded to Cavalier poets and their works as a code for the new/old aesthetic and moral norms the plays both satirized and celebrated. This strange mixture of positive rebelliousness and weary irony made the resurgence of Cavalier poets' work a complex test of education and refined taste. Try reading the lyrics as a "Puritan," often an easy task for Post-Modern Americans who are thoroughly familiar with Puritan objections to art which appears to celebrate or even tolerate faulty moral behavior. Remember that the Puritan alternative lyrics were the Psalms of David, the Holy Sonnets of Donne, George Herbert's The Temple, and Herrick's sacred lyrics from The Hesperides. Comparison of the right poems from any of those sources with a given Cavalier lyric will help explain why either the occasion of the Cavalier poem is morally challenging or the poem's response to an otherwise safe situation is (to a Puritan) morally dangerous. What can we make of a poetic style that exists to offend the tastes of another poetic style? Or, to reverse the analysis, what does it mean when one poetic style explicitly or implicitly condemns another style to Hell?
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