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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Sir John Suckling (1609–1642)

SIR JOHN SUCKLING is an interesting product of an interesting age. His portrait by Vandyke—that of a fair-haired gallant, his long curls hanging over his shoulders, his eyes a steely blue, firm red lips, and a stalwart yet graceful figure arrayed in the richest silks and velvets—tells much of his story. But there are other characteristics less easily discovered. With the nonchalant manner, half bravado, half indifference, of the cavalier, he took good care of himself on at least two occasions when the spirit of the age and his training would have led him to display less caution. The King himself (Charles I.) did not excel him in the gorgeousness of his entertainments, nor was there so prodigal a gamester in the kingdom; yet he was capable of giving the soundest and the most virtuous advice, and of expressing the most edifying and Christian sentiments. Had his brother-in-law Sir George Southcott but lived to read Sir John’s remarkable epistle on Southcott’s death by his own hand, he would have refrained from such a proceeding for very shame of becoming an object of ridicule. Yet when Suckling, an exile and in distress, came to a dangerous pass in his fortunes, he committed suicide, regardless of his own satire. His splendid, erratic, melancholy career left no trace either of sadness or sentiment in his poems. There is nothing of the troubadour, nothing of the minor strain of melancholy cheerfulness which touches the heart in Lovelace’s gay lyrics. The poem beginning

  • “Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
  • Prythee why so pale?”
  • is completely Suckling, and shows that his wreaths were not twined from the cypress-tree. Debt and love were both troublesome, with perhaps a slight difference in favor of debt. He never, according to the scanty facts known of his life, had a serious love affair, and certainly he sported with the grande passion. Yet he treated it with a curious, contradictory respect. He required of his imaginary “soul’s mistress” neither beauty, nor wit, nor charm,—making all these qualities subjective, and bidding her teach him only to be true, that love might last forever. In an age of license he degraded literature with no coarse or impure line; and now and then he who had written with such pious zeal the paper ‘Religious Thoughts on the State of the Nation,’ composed a poem which chills the blood, though he who gave it birth has slept for more than two centuries among those “who in fine garments and chests of cedar are laid up for immortality.”

    Suckling, whose “pretty touch savors more of the grape than the lamp,” little as he heeded it often saw the death’s-head at the feast. He saw it in the lovely lines ‘Farewell to Love,’ after taking leave of the “dear nothings” with which he had floated in the shadowed landscape of life. The poem ‘Against Absence’—chiefly acute raillery, though there is a Comus-like touch in its simple force—cannot be read without producing a feeling of solitude. And in the rich, luxuriant ‘Dream,’ cold fingers seem to press the brow.

    Suckling’s poems, all collected, are comprised in one thin volume. He set out to be a dramatist, fancying that what genius for letters he possessed was dramatic; and although he had written a satire entitled ‘The Session of the Poets,’—which Byron imitated in ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ and which in its day had as great a vogue,—and two prose essays, the ‘Thoughts on Religion’ and ‘A Tract on Socinianism,’ he made his first serious dramatic attempt in 1638, when he published ‘Aglaura,’—a play studded with beautiful passages but without reality or development. The poets who had themselves been ridiculed all laughed at it, and called it “a rivulet of text and a meadow of margin.” Its interest to us is in its having been the first play acted with regular scenery, which had hitherto been used only in the masques. His next play, ‘Brennoralt’ (1639), has finer qualities, but might have been written by any of the “mob of gentlemen” whom Pope described as writing as well as they did anything else. Steele greatly admired a description of the loves of the hero and heroine, Brennoralt and Franclia; comparing it to a passage in ‘Paradise Lost.’ ‘The Goblins,’ modeled after ‘Macbeth,’ need not detain us but that it contains the oft-quoted line, original with Sir John, “The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman” (Act iii., Scene 2).

    As a lyric poet alone then, Suckling will be remembered; and probably as the author of the single lyric, ‘Ballad on a Wedding,’ composed on the marriage of Roger Boyle (first Earl of Orrery) with Lady Mary Howard. The nimble grace, the happy turn, the elegance and sparkle of fancy in this poem, the light and delicate touch, and the ingenious conception, have placed it among the masterpieces of English lyrics. He has written other poems that will not be readily forgotten, though they may not secure immortality:—

  • “I prythee send me back my heart,”
  • with recurring lines like a fugue—
  • “No, no, fair Mistress, it must be;”
  • the stanzas headed ‘The Invocation,’ with their difficult construction and recurring rhymes; the love song with its reverent gallantry,—
  • “I touch her as my beads, with devout care,
  • And go in to my courtship as my prayer;”
  • and the ideally lovely poem beginning “If you refuse me once,” and, after the first three stanzas that breathe the very soul of manliness, the beautiful and passionate outburst “Would that I were all soul,” and the “Why so pale and wan, fond lover?” already referred to.

    Hallam, chary of praise, says, “Suckling is acknowledged to have left behind him all former writers of song, in gayety and ease. It is not equally clear that he has ever been surpassed.”

    Few facts are known of his brief, brilliant career. His father, John Suckling, was a knight and a Secretary of State; the son was born at Winton in Middlesex, and baptized February 10th, 1608–9. He was early attached to the court, and, says Sir William Davenant, “for his accomplishments and ready sparkling witt was the bull that was most bayted; his repartee being most sparkling when set on and provoked.” He went abroad, and served under Gustavus Adolphus. To aid Charles on his Scottish campaign, he raised a troop of horse; but though they cost him twelve thousand pounds, and were clad in white and red, when they came in sight of the army at Dunse they fled without the loss of a feather. Hence the lampoon Percy preserves:—

  • “Sir John got him an ambling nag
  • To Scotland for to ride-a!”
  • He gave good advice to both King and Queen in their subsequent troubles; but at the fall of Strafford, fled to France, where his faint heart and gay philosophy failed him. He died in Paris in 1642. His memoir and poems were published by his relative, Rev. Alfred Suckling (London, 1832).