The Cavalier Poets: An Anthology edited by Thomas Crofts

This is a volume of the cheap and cheerful Dover Thrift Editions. It cost £1 and is 94 pages long including index. In his very short introduction, Thomas Crofts tells us that by the 1630s there were roughly speaking two ‘schools’ of English poetry, the followers of John Donne and followers of Ben Jonson.

It was Dr Johnson who, in 1780, first used the term ‘metaphysical poets’ to refer to Donne and his school, but in fact John Dryden a hundred years earlier had criticised Donne for using complex and philosophical ideas not only in his satires but in his love poetry. Not just philosophical ideas – metaphysical poetry characteristically invokes abstruse imagery from mathematics and the sciences, astronomy and theology. The most famous example is the short lyric love poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning in which Donne compares the souls of himself and his love to the two legs of a compass.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Clever – too clever and contrived in the opinion of both Dryden and Johnson. Other poets usually put in the metaphysical category include George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne and Richard Crashaw. Their poetry is intense, intellectual, full of clever and sometimes grotesque conceits, ideas, similes and comparisons. Sometimes the style is applied to love poetry, but also to very intense religious meditations, notably in Donne and Herbert’s religious works.

The other school followed Ben Jonson, the tremendously successful author in the 1600s of a series of ‘city comedies’, scathing satires on the follies and vices of his fellow Londoners, who then transitioned to writing a large number of masques for the court and aristocratic patrons in the 1620s and 30s, as well as a steady stream if incidental poetry.

Jonson is much blunter. He celebrates wine, women and the well-stocked larders of fine country mansions. Maybe his most famous poem is the lyric To Celia:

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

Nothing obscure or taxing about that song. The younger generation of poets who started writing in the 1620s generally followed Ben, indeed a group of them self-consciously referred to themselves as the Sons of Ben. They became associated with the Royalist cause, celebrating aristocratic life, fine living, the arts, all flourishing under the patronage of good king Charles.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Herrick was the oldest of the Tribe of Ben and wrote at least five poems to the older poet. Herrick is master of the blithe lyric, bringing a sane, balanced joie de vivre to amorous songs, satiric couplets, drinking songs and devotional poetry. He dealt with English country life and its seasons, village customs, complimentary poems to various ladies and his friends, themes taken from classical writings and a solid bedrock of Christian faith.

Herrick was ordained in 1623 and in 1629 became the vicar of Dean Prior in Devonshire, which is surprising when you read the casual sensuality of his love poetry, for example the poet imagining himself a vine which spreads over his beloved’s body, encompassing her breasts and then her private parts, or has a vision of a woman in the woods with her skirts tucked up to reveal ‘the happy dawning of her thigh’.

Herrick was ejected by the Puritans in 1647 for refusing to sign the Solemn Covenant but reinstated on the Restoration. He had, after all, written poems celebrating the births of Charles II and James Duke of York in the 1630s, and had dedicated to the Prince of Wales his major volume of verse, Hesperides, published 1648, which contains quite a few poems praising Charles I. His loyalty was rewarded.

Herrick writes directly and clearly. Life is sweet, life is beautiful, life is full of good things, the seasons, the country, the fruits of the earth and the love of God, and we should enjoy it all while we can.

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.

His most famous lines are the opening of To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

Thomas Carew (1595? – 1639)

Carew began his professional career as assistant to the English ambassador to the Netherlands in 1616 and was sacked for insulting the ambassador and his wife. He went on to have a successful career as poet and courtier, being appointed to King Charles’s Privy Chamber in 1628. He acquired a reputation for mischief and debauchery, and his poems have an edge. He feels more varied than Herrick: there are the usual lyrics to haughty mistresses named Celia, but also some genuinely moving elegies, for example to Lady Mary Villiers. The three most impressive poems are a long hymn of praise to Saxham, a country house owned by Sir John Crofts, the poem being an example of the ‘praise of a country house, its setting, household and host’ which was popular at the time, whose best example is Jonson’s poem To Penshurst. There’s also a page-long poem praising Jonson himself, though it appears to surprisingly tell the Master that his newest play is not as good as Volpone. The third outstanding work is the long elegy to John Donne:

In the middle there’s an extended section where he says Donne’s predecessors and contemporaries were servile imitators who pretend to a mimic fury, pretend to be possessed by a divine fire copied from the classics such as Anacreon or Pindar…

The Muses’ garden, with pedantic weeds
O’erspread, was purg’d by thee; the lazy seeds
Of servile imitation thrown away,
And fresh invention planted; thou didst pay
The debts of our penurious bankrupt age;
Licentious thefts, that make poetic rage
A mimic fury, when our souls must be
Possess’d, or with Anacreon’s ecstasy,
Or Pindar’s, not their own…

But Donne purged this overgrown garden, cleared away ‘the lazy seeds of servile imitation’ and planted ‘fresh invention’. In terms of poetry the age was bankrupt but Donne paid off its debts and set it up anew. Then, embedded in the following lines and amid this extended argument, are a couple of standout lines:

… the subtle cheat
Of sly exchanges, and the juggling feat
Of two-edg’d words, or whatsoever wrong
By ours was done the Greek or Latin tongue,
Thou hast redeem’d, and open’d us a mine
Of rich and pregnant fancy; drawn a line
Of masculine expression, which had good
Old Orpheus seen, or all the ancient brood
Our superstitious fools admire, and hold
Their lead more precious than thy burnish’d gold,
Thou hadst been their exchequer, and no more
They each in other’s dust had rak’d for ore.

Opened us a mine of rich and pregnant fancy – that expertly captures the way Donne invented something utterly new, in his poetry’s concentration, its intellectual demandingness, its extravagant intellectualism, its unexpected and dazzling imagery. The lines after it describe that Donne and Carew’s contemporaries as ‘superstitious fools’ for admiring ‘the ancient brood’ of classical poets, for considering their ‘lead’ more precious than Donne’s ‘burnished gold’ – but goes on to make the Donne-ish image that, had Orpheus (the legendary founder of poetry and song) and the ancient Greeks known about Donne, ‘thou hadst been their exchequer’, that’s to say, they would have been able to draw an indefinite supply of money i.e. poetic imagery, from him, and wouldn’t have had to rake around in each other’s dust i.e. copy each other’s ideas and images.

It’s an extended argument, which combines imagery and metaphors in a dense a knotty way which Donne would have appreciated, though it lacks the lightness, and the spare and unexpected line lengths of a Donne poem.

Sir John Suckling (1609 – 41)

Rich and good looking, Suckling was also swashbuckling. Aged just 22 he volunteered to fight in the army of Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years War. Back in Charles I’s court, he wrote poems and some of the masques which Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria loved (and acted in!). He led his own troop of soldiers on the king’s side in the first Bishop’s war with Scotland and then had a series of improbable adventures. He is said to have been involved in a Royalist plot to release the Earl of Strafford from the Tower of London and forced to flee to Paris. From here he was, apparently, also forced to flee after a love affair, then he was in Spain, where he was said to have been arrested by the inquisition, before settling in Holland. Eventually, crushed by poverty and debts, he took his own life, just as the civil wars began.

His tone of voice is ‘witty, decorous, naughty’ as well as cultivating a certain military swagger, entirely appropriate in a writer who, though he wrote comparatively little, in some ways epitomises the bravura qualities of the Cavalier Poet. When I was young I memorised his song:

Why so pale and wan fond lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute young sinner?
Prithee why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can’t win her,
Saying nothing do’t?
Prithee why so mute?

Quit, quit for shame, this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her.

‘The devil take her!’ It has the real insouciant tough-mindedness of the true cavalier. It entirely anticipates the amused cynicism of the Restoration wits. And, rereading this book, I was surprised to rediscover just how cynical and unillusioned Suckling is. His poems argue against love, against ‘fruition’ i.e. possessing your beloved, because love quickly turns stale, how the excitement is all in the game, in the chase.

Women enjoy’d (whate’er before th’ have been)
Are like romances read, or sights once seen :
Fruition’s dull, and spoils the play much more
Than if one read or knew the plot before.
‘Tis expectation makes a blessing dear ;
Heaven were not heaven, if we knew what it were.

There’s a genuinely funny little dialogue between J.S and T.C., which stands for Thomas Carew (presumably they were friends) which contrasts their differing approaches to watching a noted beauty walk through the ornamental gardens at Hampton Court. TC expresses the traditional lover’s rhetoric, that the passing beauty woke the flowers, her voice was like music etc, while J.S. is having none of it and says he spent his time undressing her with his eyes and if she’d only taken one last turn round the gardens, he’d have succeeded in stripping her naked, dammit!

There is a Farewell to love, a comic poem comparing wooing a woman to laying siege to a town (imagery that crops up in many Restoration comedies), a poem telling a pale-faced lover to stop bloody whining. Suckling is having none of that nonsense. I particularly liked the poem comparing love and debt i.e. only the man who is free of both can be called happy. He runs through all the poets and professions which are rich in this or that but still prey to debt or still prey to love.

But he that can eat beef and feed on bread which is so brown
May satisfy his appetite, and owe no man a crown:
And he that is content with lasses clothèd in plain woollen,
May cool his heat in every place, he need not to be sullen,
Nor sigh for love of lady fair; for this each wise man knows,
As good stuff under flannel lies, as under silken clothes.

Richard Lovelace (1618 – 1658)

Lovelace was heir to an old Kentish family which was distinguished in Elizabeth’s reign. He was a soldier and fought for Charles. Just as the war was about to break out, he presented a Royalist petition to Parliament in April 1642 and was imprisoned for a couple of months for his pains. Upon his release, he raised a militia and joined Charles at his headquarters in Oxford. When Charles surrendered himself to the Scots, Lovelace fled abroad and offered his services as a soldier to King Louis of France. He was wounded at a battle at Dunkirk. He returned to England in 1648, during the period of the second civil war and was promptly locked up again, this time for a year. He was released in 1649 and died in poverty in 1658.

Crofts makes the simple, central point that the carpe diem mode, the gather ye rosebuds, live for today mindset was very appropriate for supporters of the king who were oppressed by a sense of the gathering storm, and then watched their side go down to defeat. Life is beautiful, sweet and full of pleasure but, as the soldiers among these poets knew, could be ended in a moment. Lovelace expresses this feeling sweetly and simply.

To Lucasta, Going to the Wars

Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.

True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.

Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Dear) so much,
Lov’d I not Honour more.

That said, Lovelace struck me as the most Donne-like of the four, routinely using quite complex or our-of-the-way conceits in his love poetry. The Grasshopper is an example of an unusual subject, just as mention of the ostrich in another poem suggests a drive to include or use unusual imagery. But there’s one poem that not only adopts a Donne-like tone i.e. lectures his beloved with an elaborate metaphysical argument, especially in the 3rd and 4th stanzas – but actually echoes a famous rhyme of Donne’s.

To Lucasta, going beyond the Seas

If to be absent were to be
Away from thee;
Or that when I am gone
You or I were alone;
Then, my Lucasta, might I crave
Pity from blustering wind or swallowing wave.

But I’ll not sigh one blast or gale
To swell my sail,
Or pay a tear to ‘suage
The foaming blue god’s rage;
For whether he will let me pass
Or no, I’m still as happy as I was.

Though seas and land betwixt us both,
Our faith and troth,
Like separated souls,
All time and space controls:
Above the highest sphere we meet
Unseen, unknown; and greet as Angels greet.

So then we do anticipate
Our after-fate,
And are alive i’ the skies,
If thus our lips and eyes
Can speak like spirits unconfined
In Heaven, their earthy bodies left behind.

The hyperbole that the lovers’ faith and troth control ‘all time and space’ is very Donne, as is the notion that in some other, higher sphere, their souls ‘greet as Angels greet’. What attracted the derogatory description ‘metaphysical’ is the way the poet is taking a fairly run-of-the-mill sentiment – telling his beloved they’ll still be in love even though he’s going abroad – and using this hyperbolical language of time and space, higher spheres and angelology.

As to the echoed rhyme, compare and contrast with The Good Morrow by Donne:

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.

Summary

So Herrick is happy-go-lucky, Carew is knotty, Suckling is cynical and Lovelace is the most metaphysical, in the sense that his poems are often making a case and use unusual and arcane imagery to do so. A good example is his densely argued poem about his mistress’s glove.

Elinda’s Glove

Thou snowy Farm with thy five Tenements!
Tell thy white Mistresss here was one
That call’d to pay his daily Rents:
But she a-gathering Flowers and Hearts is gone,
And thou left void to rude Possession.

But grieve not pretty Ermine Cabinet,
Thy Alabaster Lady will come home;
If not, what Tenant can there fit
The slender turnings of thy narrow Room,
But must ejected be by his own doom?

Then give me leave to leave my Rent with thee;
Five kisses, one unto a place:
For though the Lute’s too high for me;
Yet Servants knowing Minikin nor Bass,
Are still allow’d to fiddle with the Case.

Where ‘minikin’ means treble, so that the final couplet means that even servants who know nothing about music are allowed to touch the case (of an instrument) and in the same way the poet claims that actual music-making on a lute – by which he means making love to, fondling the actual snow-white hand of his mistress – is far above his status but nonetheless, just like servants who know nothing about music are allowed to fiddle with music cases, so he, knowing nothing about love, is allowed to touch and revere love’s implement, the empty glove of his lover.

Quite packed, isn’t it?


Related links

Restoration art

Restoration comedies

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