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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

I. Cavalier Lyrists

§ 10. Sir John Suckling

“Easy, natural Suckling” has won for himself, since the days of the restoration and Congreve’s Millamant, an assured place in the bead-roll of English poets as the typical cavalier lyrist, the arch-representative of Pope’s “mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease” light-hearted songs of courtly gallantry. Considerable in bulk and varied in character as is his literary work, it can only be regarded as the product of certain hours of leisure, snatched from a life of tempestuous mirth, or from the nobler activities of a soldier’s career. Suckling, sometimes, has been regarded as a mere reveller of the court, who made war upon all that was noblest in love, and substituted songs licentious in spirit and in metric structure for the chaste raptures of Elizabethan love-lyrists. But such an estimate of the man is one-sided and even false. For, while it is true that some of his poems are sensuous and even obscene, there are others which are lofty in thought and full of spiritual exaltation. If he could write the poem: “’T is now since I sat down before that foolish fort, a heart,” in which he vilifies woman’s honour, he was also the author of stanzas such as these:

  • O, that I were all soul, that I might prove
  • For you as fit a love
  • As you are for an angel, for, I know,
  • None but pure spirits are fit loves for you.
  • You are all ethereal, there ’s in you no dross,
  • Nor any part that ’s gross.
  • Your coarsest part is like a curious lawn,
  • The vestal relics for a covering drawn.
  • Your other parts, part of the purest fire
  • That e’er Heaven did inspire,
  • Makes every thought that is refined by it
  • A quintessence of goodness and of wit.
  • Moreover, though Suckling’s best-known works are those audacious songs which he tossed off in the interval between an afternoon game of bowls and an evening at cribbage, it is well to remember that he was the author of the statesmanlike Letter to Mr. Henry Jermyn and the scholarly An Account of Religion by Reason—in which he makes war upon Socinian heresies. His plays, too, whatever may be their dramatic value, display a vein of generous romanticism and chivalrous feeling which enable us to understand how it was that the notorious gamester and spendthrift courtier was, at the same time, the close friend of the philosophic Falkland and “the ever memorable” John Hales.

    He was born, in the year 1609, at Twickenham, the son of Sir John Suckling, who, belonging to an old Norfolk family, had risen to eminence among the court officials of James I, and, in the last years of his life, was a secretary of state and comptroller of the royal household. Nothing certain is known of the poet’s school, but, in 1623, he entered Trinity college, Cambridge, and, four years later, passed to Gray’s inn. The death of his father, in 1627, left him an orphan, and the inheritor of great wealth. The idea of studying law was now abandoned, and, in his twenty-first year, Suckling entered upon his adventurous career as a traveller and soldier of fortune. He visited France and Italy, returned to England to be knighted, and, in 1631, joined with Charles, marquis of Hamilton, in the campaigns of Gustavus Adolphus. He is said to have been present at the battle which ended in the defeat of Tilly at Leipzig on 17 September, 1631, and at the sieges of Crossen, Guben, Glogau and Magdeburg; he returned to England in 1632.

    The years that followed were spent at court, where his great wealth, his ready wit and command of repartee—to which seventeenth century writers bear abundant witness—and, lastly, the versatility of his literary powers, won him fame and admiration. He gave magnificent entertainments, wrote plays which he furnished at his own expense with magnificent dresses and gorgeous scenery and, with characteristic ardour, threw himself into all the pleasures of a pleasure-loving court. In 1637 appeared the string of witty, but carelessly written, verses, entitled A Session of the Poets; and the following year saw the performance of his plays, Aglaura and The Goblins. To these years, in all probability, also belong many of his lyrics and occasional verses. Then, on the outbreak of the Scottish campaign of 1639, Suckling, abandoning poetry and a courtier’s life for service in the field, equipped at his own expense a troop of a hundred horse, marched towards the Scottish border and, like his king, suffered defeat at the hands of Leslie. The Scottish campaign also inspired him to write his tragedy, The Discontented Colonell, which was republished in 1646, under the title, Brennoralt.

    When the Long Parliament was summoned in November, 1640, Suckling sat as member for Bramber (Sussex), and, in the following year, he joined with Henry Jermyn, colonel Goring and others in what was known as “the first army plot,” the purpose of which was to win for the king the command of the army. The plot was discovered, and Suckling and Jermyn fled to France. Here, at Rouen or Paris, he spent some months in obscurity and deep dejection, and, according to Aubrey, ended his life by suicide in the year 1642. Four years later, his works were collected and published under the title, Fragmenta Aurea, and passed through several editions before the end of the century. In addition to his poems, the volume contained the three plays Aglaura, The Goblins and Brennoralt, together with his letters and his Account of Religion by Reason. In the year 1659 appeared, also, his unfinished tragedy, The Sad One.

    Suckling’s literary fame is now chiefly bound up with his lyrics, some of the most delightful of which first found a place in his dramas. For the most part, they are song-lyrics, and were set to music by Henry Lawes. As a lyric poet, he stands somewhat apart from Herrick and Carew in the fact that he owed little to Ben Jonson: the restraint, classical colour and fastidious workmanship of Jonson made little appeal to Suckling, who censured Carew for “the trouble and pain” expended on his verses, and declared that “a laureate muse should be easy and free.” On the other hand, he bows the knee to Donne, whom he acclaims as the great lord of wit. The influence of Donne is most marked in those lyrics which he misnames sonnets, the last of which, “O, for some honest lover’s ghost,” echoes the famous “I love to talk with some old lover’s ghost” of the earlier lyrist. He has little of Donne’s intellectuality, but he follows him in the war which he waged upon the unreality and lovelorn fancies of the Petrarchian school of lyrists; while the audacious bravura of such songs as “Out upon it! I have loved” or “Why so pale and wan, fair lover,” in which he derides constancy in love and boastfully displays an unpledged heart, is directly caught from Donne’s “Go and catch a falling star” and “Now thou hast loved me one whole day.” And it is this audacious wit, combined with a debonair gaiety of heart, which furnishes the secret of his charm as a song-writer. To these high qualities must, also, be added the impetuous movement of his verse; extraordinarily careless as his poems sometimes are, his best songs have the rare seventeenth century quality of tunefulness and the perfect accord of theme and rhythm.

    But the finest and most characteristic product of Suckling’s genius, after all, lies not in lyric poetry but in narrative. The epithalamium was one of the accepted forms of Elizabethan art-lyric which was handed down to the later age, and Donne, heretic and iconoclast as he was in most that pertained to Elizabethan lyricism, had kept closely to the conventional form of wedding-ode. But when, in 1641, Roger Boyle, lord Broghill, married lady Margaret Howard, Suckling, with daring independence of mind, broke through all conventions, and, instead of a formal epithalamium, wrote his famous Ballad of a Wedding. Here we again meet with the directness, light-hearted buoyancy and impetuous movement which characterise his songs; but with these there are associated, what is elsewhere rare in Suckling, the delicate touch and caressing fancy of Herrick.